material science matters

Houston-based foundation commits $100M to Rice University to create new institute

The Welch Foundation has announced a $100 million gift to Rice University to establish The Welch Institute focused on materials science. Photo courtesy of Rice

A private foundation that funds chemical research within the state of Texas is dedicating funds to a new venture — an institute focused on advanced materials at Rice University.

The Welch Foundation announced today a $100 million gift to Rice University to establish The Welch Institute. The institute will foster the study of matter, the design and discovery of new materials, and nanotechnology, and it will be led by an independent board of directors and scientific advisory board.

"The Welch Institute will focus on the development of advanced materials for the good of society and to advance the vision of Robert A. Welch, who believed in basic chemical research as a powerful force for transformative breakthroughs and improving the quality of life," says Welch Foundation Chair and Director Carin Barth in a news release. "It will bring together top minds across all disciplines to catalyze innovation and center leadership in the field right here in the Houston area."

Material science has an impact across industries — from energy, water, space, telecommunications, manufacturing, transportation, and more.

"Innovation is the foundation of progress. More than ever, the discovery of new knowledge is in turn the precursor of innovation. That is why universities and the work we do are key components of the innovation ecosystem," said Rice University President David Leebron at the press conference. "We expect the Welch Institute to serve the needs of all mankind, but we also expect it will secure a stronger future for the people of Houston."

The institute has a huge opportunity to lead the way in material science in the United States — as most of the current research and innovation within this field is happening on foreign land.

"While [material science] is fundamental to every conceivable aspect of our lives, the United States may be falling behind in terms of advancement in this field," says Gina Luna, board member of The Welch Foundation and acting president of The Welch Institute, at the press conference. "Of the top 10 material science institutes in the world today, not one of them is in the U.S. We believe the Welch Institute can change that."

Luna adds that the organization will bring together experts together in Houston, "where we just know how to get things done," she adds.

Rice is an ideal home for the initiative, says Pulickel M. Ajayan, chair of Rice's department of materials science and nanoengineering, and Houston stands to benefit from the program as well.

"This new institute will serve as an international hub for materials research, so that people from all around the world can come here and spend time and see Houston and Rice as a destination for materials research," he adds.The Welch Foundation has granted over $1 billion in funds and has endowed 48 chairs at 21 Texas universities, says Peter Dervan, chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of The Welch Foundation and Bren Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology.

"We want to develop the Institute while maintaining all of our legacy grant programs and awards, which have served Texas scientists so well over the years," he adds,

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Building Houston

 
 

Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning. Image via kodahealthcare.com

A new Houston-based digital advanced care planning company is streamlining some of the most difficult conversations in the health care industry around palliative care.

Founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry, Koda Health uses AI to help patients create advance medical care directives and documents—such as a living will—through an easy to use web-based interface.

Koda Health uses a conversational platform where users can enter information about their values, living situations, quality of life wishes, and more while learning about different care options at their own speed. It also uses a proprietary machine learning approach that personalizes audio-video guided dialogue based on the patient's individual and cultural preferences.

The app then autogenerates legal and medical documents, which patients can notarize or electronically witness the forms through the app or on their own.

According to Fafanova, who earned her PhD in in Molecular Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and now acts as the company's CEO, what historically has been a time consuming and expensive process, through Koda Health, takes an average of 17 minutes and is completely free of charge to the end user.

"We hope to reduce any outstanding barriers to access that might exist," Fafanova says. "It is very frequently the oldest and the poorest that are the highest utilizers of health care that don't have access to these solutions."

The app is also projected to save health care systems roughly $9,500 per patient per year, as it allows for hospitals and organizations to better plan for what their patient population is seeking in end-of-life-care.

The B2B platform was born out of the TMC's Biodesign Fellowship, which tasked Koda's founding members with finding solutions to issues surrounding geriatric care in the medical center. In March 2020, Koda incorporated. Not long after ICU beds began to fill with COVID-19 patients, "galvanizing" the team's mission, Fafanova says.

"It was no longer this conceptual thing that we needed to address and write a report on. Now it was that people were winding up in the hospital at alarming rates and none of those individuals had advanced care planning in place," she says.

After accelerating the development of the product, Koda Health is now being used by health care systems in Houston, Texas, and Virginia.

The company recently received a Phase I grant of $256,000 from the National Science Foundation, which will allow Koda to deploy the platform at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and test it against phone conversations with 900 patients. Fafanova says the company will also use the funds to continue to develop personalization algorithms to improve Kona's interface for users.

"We want to make this a platform that mimics a high quality conversation," she says.

After Koda completes the Phase I pilot program it will then be eligible to apply for a Phase II award of up to $1 million in about a year.

Koda Health was founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry. Photos via kodahealthcare.com

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