fresh funds

UH team lands grant to study how to protect crops from climate change

A Houston research team has scored nearly $100,000 to continue work on food crop protection. Photo via

A team of researchers at the University of Houston has received a $995,805 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to uncover new ways to protect the world’s food crops from climate change.

The research is being led by Abdul Latif Khan, assistant professor of plant biotechnology at the UH Cullen College of Engineering’s Division of Technology, as the project’s principal investigator. He's joined by other researchers from UH and Texas A&M on the research.

The team will begin performing experiments in Houston next month that focus on two main objectives: "To improve plant growth and build plants’ resistance against climate change,” Khan said in a statement from UH.

They plan to develop novel tools for the agriculture industry as well as new, affordable, easy-to-use methods that safeguard the soil systems and prevent farmers from losing their land.

"We’re exploring two approaches," Khan says in a statement. "One is to adopt naturally relevant systems, the other involves synthetic biology or genetic engineering approaches to producing food.”

Plant biologist Abdul Latif Khan is the project’s principal investigator. Photo via

The team will also use the funding to build a new curriculum for students, particularly those who come from communities currently underrepresented among the agriculture industry’s leadership, according to UH.

“With this new project, we hope to expand opportunities in agricultural science and increase representation by opening doors for inspired scientists of many backgrounds,” Khan said.

According to UH, extreme weather events have an impact on the crops themselves, the makeup of soil for new or existing crops, and in turn a farmer’s income and the world's food supply.

"Climate change is affecting the entire earth, and it’s leaving us with less land to produce food," Khan added. "By the beginning of the next century, the world food demand will be almost 30 percent to 35 percent higher than what we are growing now. To reach that higher level, we will need novel tools in our agriculture system."

Last month, two UH professors were named as fellows to the National Academy of Inventors, one of whom was recognized for her vital research leading to innovative solutions in the energy and industrial fields and becoming the first woman in the United States to earn a doctorate degree in petroleum engineering. UH now has 39 professors who are either Fellows or Senior Members of the NAI.

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A View From HETI

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want. Photo courtesy of Boxes

With the help of a new conversational artificial intelligence platform, a Houston startup is ready to let brands get up close and personal with consumers while minimizing waste.

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want.

The Boxes device, about the size of a 40-inch television screen, dispenses products to consumers in a modern and sustainable spin on the old-fashioned large vending machine.

CEO Fernando Machin Gojdycz learned that business from his entrepreneur father, Carlos Daniel Machin, while growing up in Uruguay.

“That’s where my passion comes from — him,” Gojdycz says of his father. In 2016, Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay with some engineer friends

Funded by a $2,000 grant from the University of Uruguay, the company's mission was “to democratize and economize affordable and sustainable shopping,” in part by eliminating wasteful single-use plastic packaging.

“I worked for one year from my bedroom,” he tells InnovationMap.

Fernando Machin Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay before relocating the company to Greentown Houston. Photo courtesy of Boxes

The device, attached to a wall, offers free samples, or purchased products, in areas of high foot traffic, with a touch-screen interface. Powered by watsonx Assistant, the device asks survey questions of the customer, who can answer or not, on their mobile devices, via a QR code.

In return for completing a survey, customers can get a digital coupon, potentially generating future sales. The software and AI tech tracks sales and consumer preferences, giving valuable real-time market insight.

“This is very powerful,” he says.

Boxes partnered in Uruguay with major consumer brands like Kimberly-Clark, SC Johnson and Unilever, and during COVID, pivoted and offered PPE products. Then, with plans of an expansion into the United States, Boxes in 2021 landed its first U.S. backer, with $120,000 in funding from startup accelerator Techstars.

This led to a partnership with the Minnesota Twins, where Boxes devices at Target Field dispensed brand merchandise like keychains and bottles of field dirt.

Gojdycz says while a company in the Northeast is developing a product similar in size, Boxes is not “targeting traditional spaces.” Its software and integration with AI allows Boxes to seamlessly change the device screen and interface, remotely, as well.

Boxes aims to provide the devices in smaller spaces, like restrooms, where they have a device at the company's headquarters at climate tech incubator Greentown Labs. Boxes also recently added a device at Hewlett Packard Enterprise headquarters in Spring, as part of HPE’s diversity startup program.

Boxes hopes to launch another sustainable innovation later this year, in universities and supermarkets. The company is also developing a device that would offer refillable detergent and personal cleaning products like shampoo and conditioner with a reusable container.

Since plastic packaging accounts for 40 percent of retail price, consumers would pay far less, making a huge difference, particularly for lower-income families, he says.

“We are working to make things happen, because we have tried to pitch this idea,” he says.

Some supermarket retailers worry they may lose money or market share, and that shoppers may forget to bring the refill bottles with them to the store, for example.

“It’s about..the U.S. customer,” he says, “….but we think that sooner or later, it will come.”

Boxes has gotten funding from the accelerator startup branch of Houston-based software company Softeq, as well as Mission Driven Finance, Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, and Right Side Capital, among others.

“Our primary challenges are scaling effectively with a small, yet compact team and maintaining control over our financial runway,” Gojdycz says.

The company has seven employees, including two on its management team.

Gojdycz says they are actively hiring, particularly in software and hardware engineering, but also in business development.


This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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