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Photo courtesy of Ventana Ballet

Ventana Ballet will presents yet another eerie twist to its fan-favorite, Undead, Haunted House of Dances. Horrifying hipsters, exiled ex-wives, and slapstick sidekicks are just a few of the spooky characters rounding out the company’s immersive reimagining of the classic ballet Dracula.

This year, the audience will decide the fate of these poor, unfortunate souls. Pre-show hauntings begin in the bar area before guests are summoned by the Witch into the Hall for their official invitation to join her “fang club.”

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University of Texas launches $10 million seed fund with investment in vaccine storage pioneer

Sprouting Ideas

Planting a seed seems like a quaint activity, but the University of Texas at Austin doesn't do anything small. Its new $10 million UT seed fund is going into incubation soon, thanks to the efforts of Discovery to Impact, the team leading the University's "research commercialization and innovation efforts."

Except for its scale, this project is no different from any other seed investment, which inputs capital into a business in the form of a lump sum, in exchange for a portion of the business. In this case, the recipients are "promising new startups built on university-owned intellectual property," according to a press release. In total, UT Austin estimates that this intellectual property, or research enterprise, totals $800 million, a number it commits to "dramatically expand."

“By investing in these early-stage companies, we will be addressing a crucial gap in the capital market and enabling development of impactful technologies, while encouraging investors to consider opportunities coming out of the university,” said vice president of business strategies and operations Jim Davis in the release.

Discovery to Impact helps launch startups and stays on board through the many growing pains many startups experience, helping to accelerate "new products, services, solutions and cures." This means choosing and collaborating with three or four new companies each year, and when divided, the seed does appear rather small: companies can expect no more than a $250,000 investment.

The first seed will be planted in Jurata Thin Film, in order to grow solutions that streamline vaccine and biologic development and distribution worldwide. As many who followed COVID-19 vaccine news are aware, one major problem in distributing a vaccine is keeping it cold and stable. Jurata, based on the work of UT College of Pharmacy professor Maria Croyle, makes "thin films" (look up this keyword to see how unique Croyle's contribution is) that preserve vaccines for up to three years at room temperature. This is excellent news for communities with fewer resources or more arduous shipping needs.

The company is still relatively young, although not brand-new, having been founded in 2019. Its leadership has more experience; CEO Sheila Mikhail and co-founder Jude Samulski have previously collaborated on Asklepios BioPharmaceutical Inc. (AskBio) and Bamboo Therapeutics Inc.

The UT Seed Fund investment, along with other funding, will help bring about a pilot-scale manufacturing line that can create 1,000 doses of loaded thin films per hour, plus studies to ensure the safety of the formulation under the tongue, inside the cheek, and via intramuscular injection.

“Jurata is very excited to be the first recipient of UT Seed Fund,” said Jurata’s senior director of business development, Megan Livingston. “UT has been extremely supportive of our technology and development, and we look forward to continuing our relationship through this investment.”

A similar seed fund already exists at the University of Texas at Dallas, with larger sums for each business. More information about research at UT Austin is available at utexas.edu.

Disney's Strange World is a visual stunner with too many story ideas

Movie Review

For a studio whose entire reason for being seems to rely on creating and sustaining familiar characters, Walt Disney Animation takes its fair share of risks. In the last 10 years, it has released nine films, seven of which were not based on pre-existing properties (the other two were sequels for two of those seven). That’s a lot of new stuff, most of which has succeeded mightily for the perennially-popular leaders in animation.

They’re at it again with Strange World, which takes place in an unknown country/world known as Avalonia, where Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is a famous explorer whose only desire is to find a way over, around, or through the imposing mountains surrounding the land. His son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), doesn’t share his enthusiasm, and an early discovery by Searcher of a unique energy source leads to a rift between father and son. Jaeger continues onwards, while Searcher returns home with a plant they call Pando that creates harmony throughout the land.

Years later, when the plant shows signs of failure, Searcher is recruited by Avalonia leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) to help in an expedition to find the source of whatever is attacking Pando. What they and others – including Searcher’s wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) – find in their travels certainly lives up to the title.

Co-directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen and written by Nguyen, the film is a visual stunner. The quality of animation in Disney movies rarely fails to impress, and Strange World is the latest and greatest example. Whether it’s the humans, the landscape, or the innumerable weird creatures that populate the film, there is almost nothing that doesn’t deserve to be stared at and admired.

It’s odd, then, that the story does not come close to matching the graphics. There are a variety of reasons for this failure. Nguyen is the sole credited writer, and he stuffs the film full of big and small ideas, probably too many for this type of project. Searcher’s family and the world of Avalonia and beyond are diverse in multiple ways, to the point that it feels like Nguyen was trying to include everything he could think of in case he never got another shot.

The bigger sin, though, is how quickly the film advances through its plot, often bringing up new things out of nowhere. While Searcher and his family make for an interesting group, the side characters never make an impact. There are also multiple instances where the story takes a turn that makes no sense, either in the world of the film or a storytelling manner.

This includes the final act of the film, which features a significant twist that is presented and accepted in a way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. It adds on yet another message in a movie that contains a lot of them, but in a way that even those inclined to believe in what it’s trying to say may wonder why that part is there at all.

The science fiction element of Strange World is a bonanza for the filmmakers and animators to go as wild as they wanted in the visual department. But all that splendor is in service of a story that just doesn’t measure up, making it one of Disney’s less successful offerings in recent years.

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Strange World is now playing in theaters.

Photo courtesy of Disney

Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), and Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White) in Strange World

Austin leaders and Sims Foundation band together for 'Safer Together' benefit show

Perform and prepare

Austin is certainly proud of its music scene, but the music industry requires more care than it gets in many areas. One public health issue it disproportionately faces, both in the Live Music Capital and anywhere else, is one of the hardest to address: overdose deaths.

Due to stigma and underestimating the danger of seemingly known substances, it can be difficult to get through to individuals at risk for a preventable drug death, especially from a place of authority like the Travis County District Attorney. The Sims Foundation, Austin’s leading group for protecting mental health within the music industry, is leveraging its reach to rejoin D.A. José Garza’s office in producing the second annual “Safer Together: Overdose Prevention & Harm Reduction Saves Lives,” a free benefit concert raising both awareness and funds for the foundation.

“Safer Together,” also in collaboration with the Red River Cultural District (RRCD), is returning on Thursday, December 1 at Mohawk, where six local acts join the cause on one bill. (In 2021, the concerts were spread between Mohawk, the Green Jay, and Empire Control Room.) Night Drive, Trouble in the Streets, and Holy Wire will play outside, while The Pinky Rings, Hotmom, and Sad Cell play inside. Garza will also be at the venue to give opening remarks.

“Together as leaders, community-based health experts, musicians, venue owners, and small businesses who have been touched by this crisis we hope events like ‘Safer Together’ open conversations and action towards removing the stigmas and creating a pathway for change,” said RRCD’s interim executive director Nicole Klepadlo. “We're proud to work alongside our partners, appreciate our musicians and venue hosts, and encourage our community to donate to this important cause.”

In 2021, Travis County dealt with more than 300 overdose deaths, up more than 25% from two years before. It looks like 2022 is following the same trajectory, or perhaps a worse one. The county “saw overdose deaths double in the first six months of 2022 alone compared with 2021,” according to a release.

“We must continue to treat substance abuse disorder as the public health issue it is in order to prevent overdose-related deaths and keep our community safe,” said Garza in a release. “This includes community-based strategies and campaigns that increase public awareness and connect our most vulnerable communities with life-saving resources. We look forward to partnering with local leaders and non-profits to save lives in our community.”

In addition to its broader efforts in mental health, the Sims Foundation offers solutions in both addiction treatment and overdose prevention. These span counseling, vigorous medical treatment like detoxes and outpatient programs, and venue training including instruction on using naloxone to temporarily reverse an overdose. The latter training is offered with guidance from Communities for Recovery, and the Sims Foundation’s goal for funds raised is to provide more of these in the near future.

Donations will be accepted at the door (8 pm), and 100% of proceeds will be donated to the Sims Foundation. Fans at home can text SIMS to 44321 or visit simsfoundation.org to make a donation before the show.