Funding the faculty

UH launches $2 million fund for faculty innovators to help them bring their ideas to the market

The Chancellor's Technology Bridging Fund will provide grants to UH faculty to help them bring their research and ideas into reality. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The University of Houston Technology Bridge exists to help transition university research and ideas into the marketplace, and now the UH System has gone one step further to aid in that transition process.

UH has announced a $2 million fund for faculty inventors who then could use the grants — estimated to range between $25,000 to $75,000 — to bring their invention to the commercialization stage. The fund, called the Chancellor's Technology Bridging Fund, was revealed on July 18.

"University faculty are working to solve some of the most critical problems of the day, from energy and the environment to medicine," says Renu Khator, chancellor of the UH System and president of UH, in a release. "It often requires an additional boost to get technologies from the lab to the commercial arena, and this fund is designed to help our faculty take that leap."

According to the release, UH officials plan to give out anywhere from four to 10 grants each year for the next five years.

The grants are intended to aid in the prototyping or product testing process, says Tom Campbell, executive director of the Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation in the UH Division of Research. He adds that usually that ideas in that stage of growth aren't usually granted basic research funding.

"The Technology Bridging Fund will fill a gap. It's really difficult to find funding at this early stage of development, and as a consequence, a lot of innovative concepts sit on the shelf," Campbell says in the release.

The fund directly aligns with the institution's goal of taking these UH-originated ideas, companies, and technologies and introducing them to the world, where they can be used by other companies.

"It's a way to de-risk these technologies and attract external interest," Campbell says in the release. "We want to move people and ideas closer to the market. Having access to this type of funding to do that can be extremely valuable."

Last year, UH transitioned its Energy Research Park into the Technology Bridge to better facilitate the growth for its innovators and research. The organization also works to bring in corporations that are looking to expand in Houston, and, earlier this year, two organizations set up shop in the Tech Bridge.

Earlier this year, a new ranking, new ranking, published by the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association, puts UH at No. 88 among the world's top 100 universities for patent activity in 2018. And, according to Campbell, UH will continue this patent growth.

"As the UH research portfolio grows and the medical school starts up, we would continue to anticipate a strong IP portfolio going forward for UH," Campbell tells InnovationMap in a previous article.

Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."