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Houston university accelerators launch latest cohort virtually due to the coronavirus

University of Houston's RED Labs and Rice University's OwlSpark, which operate in tandem every summer, have had to re-imagine their accelerator programs in light of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of OwlSpark and RED Labs

It'll be a different kind of summer for two early-stage, university-affiliated accelerator programs that work in tandem to grow a cohort of startups.

University of Houston's RED Labs and Rice University's OwlSpark are re-imagining their programs this summer to make the most out of a virtual accelerator, which begins today, May 21, with 17 teams of startups.

"No doubt that COVID-19 will have a big impact on our program," says Kerri Smith, managing director of OwlSpark. "In the long run, there will always be the likely requirement of human-to-human interaction in the startup world — particular when it comes to generating business, meeting with customers, and securing investments — but from the training aspect, I think we are going to be able to provide something of value."

Smith says she has worked with Kelly McCormick, managing director of RED Labs, in preparing for this virtual programming in order to maintain the same level of support for the startups by using tools like Zoom, Skype, the Google Suite, and more.

McCormick, who is also an instructor at UH, has had the opportunity to test out having guest speakers in her class last semester and found that the virtual aspect was an opportunity to reach speakers that would otherwise be unavailable to come to campus.

"With challenges comes opportunities, and I think we're going to be able to deliver the same impactful content that we want to, just in a different way," McCormick says.

One challenge for the cohort will be conducting the customer engagement part of the experience virtually. Founders, Smith says, will have to focus on online customer discovery. Similarly, the startup pitch training will have to pivot to focus on pitching to a webcam.

"We've worked hard to design an experience around the reality that they are currently navigating, because it's a different reality right now," Smith says.

"Our primary goal is to create a culture of advocacy among our two cohorts, but also to help them develop some personal resiliency," Smith continues. "Challenging times reveal character in people and helping them develop some personal resiliency skills is going to come along with some of the things we are working with this summer."

The two programs were planned to have a new home in The Cannon Tower downtown this summer, which would have allows for face-to-face networking and collaboration. McCormick says they've planned virtual trivia, socials, and lunches to try to recreate the camaraderie of working together in a remote capacity.

"There's potential that we'll have some events in person, but that's really based on the guidance of our universities," McCormick says. "We'd love to have some opportunities in person, but it's really a matter if what's safe, and we're not going to require it."

Also new this year for Class 8 is a pilot program that incorporates startups from another university. Eight of the 17 teams in the cohort are from UH, while the other nine are representing Rice. However, through a partnership with the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship at Texas A&M University, three of Rice's teams hail from A&M.

"It's an experiment to expand the program by inviting other university teams," Smith says, adding that the partnership also allows the accelerator to tap into A&M's network of advisers. "Depending on the data at the end of the summer and the experience and value add, we'll evaluate whether or not that's something we want to continue doing."

The new virtual nature of the program allows for remote access for those founders based in College Station, as well as the founders who, due to campus shutdowns, were sent home mid semester in light of COVID-19.

The recruiting process was also done virtually, and McCormick says she did see a decrease in applications compared to last year — but the quality of the applicants was strong.

"There were definitely some difficult decisions," McCormick says. "The teams that did apply were a high caliber. They were really dedicated to going through the program — whatever it might looked like."

The program takes place over 12 weeks and concludes with a pitch event called the Bayou City Showcase. At this point, the event, which is usually live-streamed and held in front of an audience, is planned to still take place, however, McCormick and Smith say they aren't sure if there will be a physical event or if it will be online only.

Below is a list of descriptions for the 17 teams and the solutions they are providing.

  • an affordable, portable, imaging system capable of diagnosing diabetic retinopathy for low-resourced and underserved communities
  • an agricultural platform for use in urban settings that enables horticulturists to measure and record plant growth, detect disease, and recommend corrective actions
  • a suite of imaging and software tools that detect bleeding vessels in real-time surgery enabling surgeons to precisely locate and prevent life-threatening hemorrhages
  • an imaging device that enables healthcare professionals performing endovascular procedures to accurately visualize vascular access in a patient
  • a screening device that predicts biological hazards in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics without the use of animal models
  • an exercise platform for use in analyzing, critiquing, and correcting the form of individuals and athletes performing stationary exercises
  • an interactive content platform that uses data analytics to enable creators and viewers to more selectively choose content
  • a non-invasive skincare system that profiles the molecular concentration of the skin and creates customized formulations of products
  • a centralized pharmaceutical resource that enables women to make personalized and more informed decisions in contraceptive care
  • an advanced, improved diagnostic tool for optometrists
  • a user friendly toothbrush that monitors oral health
  • a portable cooling device that provides relief for symptoms of menopause
  • a physical therapy device that aids individuals with arm injuries in recovering their mobility quickly
  • a software that uses existing wifi to detect and alert help when an individual falls in their home
  • an improved air filter that decreases the amount of time users have to change the filter
  • a program that helps individuals invest in dividend producing stocks
  • a device that attaches to wheelchairs and raises the user so they can reach higher surfaces

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Free mental health care, local COVID-19 testing, and a new great to fund an ongoing study — here's your latest roundup of research news. Image via Getty Images

As Houston heads toward the end of summer with no major vaccine or treatment confirmed for COVID-19, local research institutions are still hard at work on various coronavirus-focused innovations.

Free mental health care, local COVID-19 testing, and a new great to fund an ongoing study — here's your latest roundup of research news.

Baylor College of Medicine genomics team to partner for local COVID-19 testing

Houston millionaire to start biotech accelerator for companies focusing on regenerative medicine

Two departments at BCM are working with the county on COVID-19 testing. Getty Images

Two Baylor College of Medicine institutions have teamed up to aid in local COVID-19 testing. The Human Genome Sequencing Center and the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome Research — under the leadership of BCM — are partnering with local public health departments to provide polymerase chain reaction testing of COVID-19 samples, according to a news release from BCM.

"We are pleased to work with the outstanding local government groups in this critical public health effort," says Dr. Richard Gibbs, director of the HGSC and Wofford Cain chair and professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor, in the release. "We are proud of the tireless determination and expertise of our centers and college staff that enabled the rapid development of this robust testing capacity to serve the greater Houston community."

Baylor is among the testing providers for Harris County Public Health, and people can receive testing following a pre-screening questionnaire online.

"We are fortunate to have Baylor College of Medicine as a close partner during the COVID-19 pandemic," says Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, in the release. "This is a challenging time for our community and as the need for increased testing capacity and getting results to residents faster has grown, Baylor has risen to the occasion. There are countless unsung heroes across Harris County who have stepped up to the plate during this pandemic and Baylor College of Medicine is one of them."

COVID-19 testing samples are collected from testing sites and delivered to the Alkek Center. After isolating the virus, genomic material is extracted and sent to the HGSC to quantitative reverse transcription PCR testing. Should the sample's RNA sequence match the virus, then it is positive for COVID-19. The sequencing must test positive three times to be considered overall positive.

Results are returned within 48 hours, and the lab has a capacity of more than 1,000 samples a day. Since May, the team has tested over 30,000 samples.

"We knew we had all the pieces to stand up a testing center fast – large scale clinical sequencing, experts in virology and molecular biology, and a secure way to return results to patients," says Ginger Metcalf, Human Genome Sequencing Center Director of Project Development, in the release. "We are also fortunate to have such great partners at Harris County Public Health, who have done an amazing job of gathering, tracking and delivering samples, especially for the most at-risk members of our community."

National Science Foundation renews Rice University funding amid pandemic

José Onuchic (left) and Peter Wolynes are co-directors of the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics at Rice University. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Rice University's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics has been granted a five-year extension from the National Science Foundation. The grant for $12.9 million will aid in continuing the CTBP's work at the intersection of biology and physics.

The center — which was founded in 2001 at the University of California, San Diego, before moving to Rice in 2011 — is led by Peter Wolynes and José Onuchic.

"We have four major areas at the center," Onuchic says in a news release. "The first is in chromatin theory and modeling, developing the underlying mathematical theory to explain the nucleus of the cell — what Peter calls the 'new nuclear physics.' The second is to test ideas based on the data being created by experimentalists. The third is to understand information processing by gene networks in general, with some applications related to metabolism in cancer. The fourth is to study the cytoskeleton and molecular motors. And the synergy between all of these areas is very important."

Onuchic adds that an upcoming donation of a supercomputer by AMD will help the center's ongoing research into COVID-19 and four institutions — Rice, Northeastern, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston — are working collaboratively on the study,

"We're all set to move on doing major COVID-related molecular simulations on day one," he says in the release. "The full functioning of a center requires a synergy of participation. Rice is the main player with people from multiple departments, but Baylor, Northeastern and Houston play critical roles."

University of Houston offers free mental health therapy for restaurant workers

Texas restaurant workers can get free mental health care from a UH initiative. Photo via Elle Hughes/Pexels

Through a collaboration with Southern Smoke and Mental Health America of Greater Houston, the University of Houston Clinical Psychology program launched a a free mental health care program for Texas-based food and beverage employees and their children.

"During normal times this is a high stress industry where people work very hard in environments where they are just blowing and going all the time," says John P. Vincent, professor of psychology and director of the UH Center for Forensic Psychology, in a news release.

The program has 14 graduate students who converse with a total of 30 patients and meet weekly with supervisors at UH.

"This opportunity allows our clinical program to reach people in the community who usually don't have access to mental health services," says Carla Sharp, professor of psychology and director of clinical training, in the release.

For restaurant industry workers looking for help and care, they can visit the Mental Health Services page on Southern Smoke's website.

According to Vincent, this is just the beginning.

"We're discussing it," says Vincent in the release. "But as far as I'm concerned it can just keep going and going."

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