eavesdropping in houston

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.

“For most of health care, this last year has been probably five years of rapid cycle re-innovation and movement forward — particularly in the digital realm.”

Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist. From rapid adoption of telemedicine to developing a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year, health care has seen rapid growth. However, there's fine tuning still needed, Boom continues.

"At the end of the day there's only so much we can do virtually," he adds.

“The most incredible thing was how the vaccines got developed so quickly.”

Chris Rizik, CEO of Renaissance Venture Partners. A large portion of the industry wasn't excited about RNA vaccines, but the COVID-19 vaccines might have changed some minds. It took 11 months to get it out into the world, but 10 of that was purely regulatory, he adds.

"One of the sustaining changes of the COVID-19 pandemic is I think RNA vaccines are here to stay."

​— Paul Klotman, executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine. Klotman adds that the vaccine's trials were so impressively quick because there were just so many COVID patients sick and eligible to enroll.

“I think one of the things the TMC institutions did really well was to decide really early on was to share data.”

Boom says, adding that the TMC represents around 70 percent of Houston's adults and around 90 percent of the city's pediatric patients. This opportunity for data is "one of the most robust sources of real-time data."

"Yes, you're going to compete clinically, but there's a lot of collaboration to be done especially during a pandemic," Boom says of the TMC's member organizations prioritizing collaboration with data sharing.

“Houston has done better than almost all major metropolitan areas because we have came together as a city and a community.”

Klotman says, adding that the vast patient base the TMC is key.

"There's a huge opportunity here for early biotech development," he says. "Because there are so many patients, there are huge opportunities to do new trials."

“The real challenge is for investors to be in tune to know what’s here to stay, and to invest around that."

Rizik says, adding that 2020 was the biggest year for health care investment with more money going into deals, rather than more deals occuring.

“We’re seeing a huge uptick in people interested in health professions, thanks to COVID.”

Boom says of the industry's workforce, which has usually been hard to recruit and grow.

“The medical school communities are all racing to change the way we teach and the kind of information we teach.”

Klotman says of the future of the workforce.

“Unlike most industries, technology is tended to be cumbersome in health care.

​— Boom says adding that new technology means added costs and slowed down processes that can't replace the human touch. Houston Methodist is looking for innovations that don't take health care professionals away from patients.

“If there’s anything this last year has shown us is that as fast as we thought we were going, we need to go faster. We’re excited to work with companies with great ideas.”

— Boom says of the future of tech in health care. "I think we're on a very transformational era in digital health right now — but there's a lot of work to be done still."

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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