Companies often struggle within themselves to get different departments to collaborate. So trying to bring together completely disparate sectors—say, innovators in energy and medicine—to work together for mutual benefit would seem like madness.
But that’s exactly the mission of the Houston organization Pumps & Pipes.
“We work very hard to establish that even dissimilar areas of technology have many similarities,” says Bill Kline, manager of drilling and subsurface at ExxonMobil’s Upstream Research Company and one of the group’s founders. “In both the upstream oil and gas industries and heart/vascular areas, we all work through long, thin tubes. We really have borrowed from the other guy’s toolbox.”
Taking a step back, the commonalities between energy and medicine become a bit clearer. Both deal with fluids that navigate through pipes controlled by pumps and valves. Blockages and corrosion can be catastrophic, and the malfunctions happen in difficult-to-reach places, whether inside the human body or in a drilling “tree” 900 feet below sea level.
The six-year-old organization, which is a consortium of medical institutions, energy companies and startups in related fields, hold biannual seminars that look at key problems common to each industry. Committees meet among themselves and report back on progress or obstacles at the next meeting.
Pumps & Pipes held its most recent summit Monday at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in south Houston to welcome its third partner, the aerospace industry.
“Operating in space leads to innovation in telemedicine, nutrition, radiation protection, exercise science,” says Ellen Ochoa, an astronaut and JSC center director. “Space is a hard and unforgiving environment, and if it can work there, it can work on Earth.”
Among the innovations that Ochoa mentioned included a partnership between NASA and Texas Children’s Hospital related to innovation regarding reducing vibration that could help make transporting newborns in ambulances safer.
Certainly, joining Pumps & Pipes is one way to boost NASA’s own research and innovations, something that has become more important as the JSC seeks to boost its own entrepreneurial activity in the wake of job and funding cutbacks.
“It’s interesting, they are incredibly smart but they don’t really know how to interface in the medical world,” says Alan Lumsden, Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center’s medical director and a Pumps & Pipes founder. “There are enormous business opportunities at NASA but they haven’t really cracked that nut yet. We want to help structure those for them.”
In between speakers, attendees mingled among the booths displaying startup ideas entrepreneurs are working on with NASA scientists. These include a non-invasive approach using radio frequency to treat open wounds and skin disorders without sutures or staples. This technique could be used in emergency care in battlefields, disaster areas or in poor communities that don’t have access to conventional healthcare.
The projects to have come out of Pumps & Pipes include running a heartbeat simulator on an oil well linear actuator pump, which now can be used to test heart valves. Another product is the Greenfield Kimray filter, which was developed from a pipeline filtration system, and is now used in heart patients.
On Monday, Pumps & Pipes also announced its new board members, a group that includes Billy Cohn, heart surgeon and serial inventor at the Texas Heart Institute; Matthew Franchek, professor of mechanical engineering and the director of the Subsea Engineering Program at the University of Houston; and Scott Parazynski, former astronaut and director and chief medical officer at the Center for Polar Medical Operations at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
The first Pumps & Pipes conference was held at U of H on its founding six years ago and attracted fewer than 100 people. Since then, interest has grown—with nearly 300 in attendance at the JSC—and the group has taken its show on the road. In 2011, Pumps & Pipes traveled to Doha at the Qatar Science & Technology Park, exposing itself to one of the globe’s energy epicenters and a region that is spending billions to upgrade its healthcare systems.
One current focus of innovation is pipeline infection, where bacteria can be converted to sulfuric acid and cause corrosion, which causes $1.5 billion in damage a year and is the leading cause of pipeline explosions. Miniaturize the pipes here and you can see how such infections would be of concern to medical professionals, too.
“Our role is fostering innovation; ideas become much easier when we come together,” says Kline at ExxonMobil. “We each are a vital part of our success.”