brain game

Data science startup based in Houston focus on neuroscience software nabs $3.78M grant

A Houston-based software startup received a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health for its work within neurophysiology. Getty Images

Armed with a nearly $3.8 million federal grant, a Houston startup aims to boost neuroscience research around the world.

Vathes LLC, a developer of data management software that collaborates with neuroscience research labs in North America and Europe, recently received the $3.78 million grant from the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That initiative is part of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Vathes says the NIH funding will enable the startup to ramp up its DataJoint Pipelines for Neurophysiology project. The project aims to make open-source software for data science and engineering available to researchers who specialize in neurophysiology, a branch of neuroscience that looks at how the nervous system functions. The pipeline project holds the promise of benefiting research in areas like autism, Alzheimer's disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease).

The project's principal investigator is Dimitri Yatsenko, vice president of research and development at Vathes. Technologically speaking, neuroscientists are playing catch-up with their counterparts in fields like astrophysics, genomics, and bioinformatics, according to Yatsenko.

Neuroscience "is undergoing a fast transformation in terms of moving toward much more data-centric, data-intensive, computation-intensive, and collaborative projects," Yatsenko says. This means that neuroscientists are "now finding themselves having to quickly adapt to an environment," he adds, "where they have to share big data and computations with their collaborators in very dynamic settings and perform them in a very fluid way."

Yatsenko says the NIH-funded project will help smaller research groups tap into the technical expertise of larger research labs.

Vathes' DataJoint Neuro platform and services, which help create so-called DataJoint pipelines, enable neuroscientists to streamline, analyze, and visualize complex data. Among its customers are Princeton University's Neuroscience Institute and Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute. The federally funded project will empower smaller labs to capitalize on existing DataJoint pipelines as ready-to-go turnkey packages, Yatsenko says.

In essence, Vathes' technology acts as a translator. Big research labs collect data in databases that can vary by computer language and platform. Through the Vathes setup, that data can be incorporated by a lab of any size into algorithmic, machine learning, and artificial intelligence mechanisms, regardless of the computer language or platform.

Edgar Walker, CEO of Vathes, says this simplifies the construction and use of databases, giving scientists "more room to focus on the logic of their data pipeline rather than on the physical implementation of it."

Founded in 2016, Vathes is housed at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. It employs 10 people. The startup previously received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Yatsenko says the project backed by the $3.78 million NIH grant will propel the startup's growth, as it "gives us a big window of opportunity" to provide tools and services that support the startup's open-source software.

"As the NIH and other funding agencies are shifting a lot of their focus to collaborative projects that are distributed among multiple institutions," Walker says, "we've established a reputation as the company that can facilitate such research, be efficient, and actually be cost-effective as well, and make the projects very smooth."

"We expect to continue to grow this business at the same exponential rate," he adds. "We'll keep our fingers crossed and see how things go."


CEO Edgar Walker (left) and Dimitri Yatsenko, vice president of research and development, lead Houston-based Vathes. Photos courtesy of Vathes

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Building Houston

 
 

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity. Photo via Getty Images

Three big businesses — Air Liquide, BASF, and Shell — have added their firepower to the effort to promote large-scale carbon capture and storage for the Houston area’s industrial ecosystem.

These companies join 11 others that in 2021 threw their support behind the initiative. Participants are evaluating how to use safe carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at Houston-area facilities that provide energy, power generation, and advanced manufacturing for plastics, motor fuels, and packaging.

Other companies backing the CCS project are Calpine, Chevron, Dow, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Linde, LyondellBasell, Marathon Petroleum, NRG Energy, Phillips 66, and Valero.

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity.

“Large-scale carbon capture and storage in the Houston region will be a cornerstone for the world’s energy transition, and these companies’ efforts are crucial toward advancing CCS development to achieve broad scale commercial impact,” Charles McConnell, director of University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, says in a news release.

McConnell and others say CCS could help Houston and the rest of the U.S. net-zero goals while generating new jobs and protecting current jobs.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial activities that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and then injecting it into deep underground geologic formations for secure and permanent storage. Carbon dioxide from industrial users in the Houston area could be stored in nearby onshore and offshore storage sites.

An analysis of U.S Department of Energy estimates shows the storage capacity along the Gulf Coast is large enough to store about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than 130 years’ worth of industrial and power generation emissions in the United States, based on 2018 data.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a single technology, but rather a series of technologies and scientific breakthroughs that work in concert to achieve a profound outcome, one that will play a significant role in the future of energy and our planet,” says Gretchen Watkins, U.S. president of Shell. “In that spirit, it’s fitting this consortium combines CCS blueprints and ambitions to crystalize Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world while contributing to local and U.S. plans to help achieve net-zero emissions.”

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