Coding self-driving cars, diagnosing breast cancer instantaneously, and analyzing DNA peptides in criminal cases may all sound like things of the future, but at San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute researchers are already making strides on these novel technologies.

They were among just a few projects in which SwRI invested in 2019, a record year of growth for the institute.

The research-and-development organization announced it collected nearly $674 million in total revenue last year, up more than 15 percent from 2018 – the highest rate of growth the company has ever recorded, according to a SwRI statement.

The nonprofit put a record amount of funds toward internal research and development last year, totaling more than $8.1 million, according to the statement, which was 20 percent more than in 2018.

With plans to expand the SwRI campus and add more jobs over the next decade, the nonprofit is aiming to continue this growth, said SwRI President Adam Hamilton. Hamilton said ground is expected to break soon on two additional buildings, and SwRI is getting close to having 3,000 employees – 2,500 of which are local.

“This was a really healthy year for us, as was 2018,” Hamilton said, citing the previous year’s $587.3 million in revenue, which marked a 10 percent increase from 2017.

During the institute’s 72nd annual meeting on Feb. 17, scientists and researchers from across many areas of SwRI presented on active research and development projects.

Among the novel approaches SwRI researchers have developed is the application of artificial intelligence in biomedicine.

After partnering with UT Health San Antonio pathologists, SwRI engineers recently won first in an international challenge to develop a faster method to detect breast cancer cells. During the meeting, SwRI engineers shared a presentation on how computers will speed up diagnostics in the future.

AI has the potential to change the way patients are treated, said Hakima Ibaroudene, SwRI engineer and challenge leader.

“Imagine an expert having to quantify and classify this [biopsy by himself] – this can be a very time-consuming and difficult task that can take hours and hours for an expert to do, whereas it can take a few seconds for a computer to do that,” Ibaroudene said.

Programmed with hundreds of thousands of pieces of data on what breast cancer cells look like, AI can find markers in minutes, she explained.

The institute will be able to take this technology and apply it to many areas of medicine as it continues its research, Ibaroudene added.

With about 60 percent of its work dedicated to government initiatives and the rest for private clients, SwRI is working on a gamut of projects including autonomous vehicles, power grid cybersecurity, improved radio antennas, and studying asteroids.

Hamilton said SwRI does applied research for NASA, the Department of Defense, and other major government entities. Services can span from a sample analysis costing $100 to a research project worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, Hamilton added.

“For years we’ve been called a hidden gem of San Antonio, although we’re well-known outside of our city in the scientific community,” Hamilton said. “We say our work spans from deep sea to deep space.”

Adam Hamilton, Southwest Research Institute president & CEO. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

While sustained growth depends heavily on outside economic factors such as tax rates and work policies, Hamilton said the institute is doing all it can internally to extend SwRI’s period of prosperity.

Efforts to invest in internal research and development will continue, Hamilton said.

As of February, fiscal year 2020 tracked slightly ahead of revenue projections, Hamilton said, although he added that it’s too early to tell how much income SwRI will have produced come September.

SwRI is working to anticipate client needs and meet them as quickly as possible, which is part of why it has experienced accelerated growth, Hamilton said. While depending on word-of-mouth for years had sustained moderate growth for SwRI, he said it’s the more aggressive approach that has helped the nonprofit.

“We know if we have a project or program or tech that we know will be a solution, it’s beneficial to invest into it and move those programs along,” he said.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...