Who's Who

3 Houston heath tech innovators to know this week

Armed with their doctorate degrees and startups, these three STEM biotech innovators are going places. Courtesy photos

Whether it's for dogs or dating, Houston is prime for innovative leaders in health science startups, and there are three in particular you need to know going into a new week. From a DNA-based dating app creator and a researcher curing cancer in dogs to cutting-edge biotech leader, here are the Houston innovators to know. Doctorate degrees and startup companies in hand, each of these entrepreneurs is going places.

Brittany Barreto, co-founder and CEO of Pheramor

Courtesy of Pheramor

Brittany Barreto was studying genetics in college, and her professor was talking about how there are 11 genes in DNA that can determine physical compatibility with others. She had the idea right then and there in the classroom to make a DNA-based dating app. Almost 10 years later, she's done it, with Pheramor.

The Houston startup has launched nationwide and is in the midst of another capital campaign. Barreto is also looking to expand her team to account for the growth and success.

Lidong Qin, founder of Innovative Biochips

Courtesy of Lidong Qin

Lidong Qin spends his days as a professor at the Houston Methodist Research Institute's department of nanomedicine, but three years ago, he expanded his resume. He launched his biotech startup, Innovative Biochips, as an independent faculty startup that licensed technology from Houston Methodist.

Qin says it can be difficult to launch a biotech startup in Houston, since the industry requires hefty initial funds to open a facility, get patents and hire a team of researchers. Now, iBiochips is armed with private investments and a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health's Small Business Technology Transfer program to continue researching and developing early disease detection technologies.

Colleen O'Connor, founder of CAVU Biotherapies 

CAVU Colleen O'Connor

Courtesy of CAVU Biotherapies

Losing a pet is awful, and for so many people, pets are full-blown family members. When Colleen O'Connor lost her furry family members to cancer, she knew she had to do something about it. Cancer treatment in humans had evolved to include immunotherapy, and O'Connor thought man's best friend deserved an upgrade from the 1980s practices veterinarians use.

She created Houston-based CAVU Biotherapies, and, in September, the first treatment was administered to a black lab named Franklin. O'Connor is focused on expanding her treatment and its access to pups so that no pet owner has to prematurely say goodbye to good boys and girls.

Amy Chronis runs the Houston office of Deloitte and serves on the sustainability board for the GHP. AlexandersPortraits.com

When Amy Chronis, the Houston managing partner for Deloitte, was asked to join the Greater Houston Partnership last year, she immediately started doing some research on some of the bigger picture issues the city is facing.

In March, as the chair for the organization's sustainability committee, she brought together a group of constituents to engage in a Smart Cities study with the goal to identify what Houston needs to focus on — what it wanted to be known for.

Overwhelmingly, the stakeholders wanted the city to be known for its innovation, something that surprised Chronis. The group pared down the eight topics of action into three they felt were most timely and then spent the rest of the time focusing on: clean energy, transportation, and smart infrastructure (technology and communication). Now, Chronis has a better understanding on what the city wants as she leads her committee for the GHP.

In her career, which has spanned the state of Texas, she's always served clients in various sectors. Specifically over her last 30 or so years in Houston, Chronis has seen the tide change within innovation, especially with large energy companies.

"We're not Silicon Valley, but Houston has so much going on in terms of development — in energy but also even in medical with the Texas Medical Center," says Chronis, citing advancements from the likes of Rice University, Houston Exponential, TMCx, Station Houston, and more. "Houston's got a lot more going on than people realize."

Chronis sat down to talk with InnovationMap about the change Houston companies are experiencing and her work with the GHP.

InnovationMap: What did you learn from the smart cities study you conducted for the GHP?

Amy Chronis: I learned a lot. It's affirming how much all types of people with different backgrounds care and are interested in this topic and are highly desirous of our region moving forward. I also learned that things are more complicated or difficult than we would like — in terms of funding initiatives, for instance.

IM: In terms of developing the city's workforce, what aspects of the community does Houston need to focus on?

AC: I think there was widespread agreement that we need to keep improving our educational outcomes for all our people. The issues around workforce development are critical for us to improve. It will take public-private partnerships to make real progress.

IM: What can Houston learn from other cities?

AC: I learned a lot about other Smart City initiatives that are being done and accomplishments made in other cities around the world. What those accomplishments have in common was a concerted effort by the city, region, and business leaders — all the stakeholders — to agree on smaller, attainable goals. Instead of trying to address something in a huge way, they nibbled at the edges, if you will.

IM: Do you think Houston is able to do that?

AC: Absolutely, I love Houston — in particular our manifest destiny and inherent pillar to our culture where everyone can make it. It's why I came here 30-something years ago and why my family and I love it here. I think hard work and opportunity still makes Houston a great city. We have the ability, we just need help bringing actionable steps forward.

IM: Switching gears a little, what's the role Deloitte and its clients are playing within Houston's innovation ecosystem?

AC: We like to think we're a real conduit for innovation and a digital transformation for many of our clients. We're very blessed to serve many of the large energy companies — and across industries — in Houston. It's really gratifying to see how much is being invested in research and development and the focus on innovation catalysts. I think there's an awareness now — more than there was a few years ago — that if you're not moving forward, then you're behind.

IM: How do you see the future of Houston's workforce?

AC: I think we have real progress to be made to make sure all of our citizens can achieve the education and opportunities they need. I'm heartened by public-private partnerships that are already underway.

As digitalization moves along, people talk about whether or not artificial intelligence and machine learning will replace jobs. It will replace some jobs, but it'll be far more important that young people still learn those really critical thinking skills. We will need people to evaluate data and make decisions — that critical reasoning will still be absolutely vital.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.