Startup wishlist

Houston needs 4 things to emerge as a startup hub, according to this entrepreneur

Houston has the potential to be a great place for startups, but it might need some fine tuning. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

I often think about why Houston's entrepreneurship ecosystem hasn't taken off as much as it should, given the talent pool and the industrial gravity that's concentrated here.

I joined Station Houston as one of the very early members in January of 2016 and since then been watching all the moving parts in the Houston innovation ecosystem as an entrepreneur. I wanted to share four practical ideas on how Houston can emerge as a startup hub.

1. Houston entrepreneurship needs to focus on deep tech and multidisciplinary endeavors
I believe a lot of breakthrough innovations will come from the interaction between different scientific disciplines or industries. We can target startups built on multidisciplinary sciences and provide a support system for them to thrive in Houston. We have the absolute best engineers, rocket scientists, and doctors in Houston, yet they aren't talking to each other as much as they should. Programs like Pipes and Pumps are great, but we need a modernized initiative that goes beyond holding a one-day event per year. A methodical and continuous program that brings professionals from energy, space, and medicine together to address the challenges these industries face. This may sound crazy, but it works. For example, my last startup commercialized DNA Sequencing in the oil and gas industry. Another startup is using microfluidics to simulate the reservoir, and there are startups using satellite data to identify methane emissions. Now, imagine if we were systematically identifying these opportunities and incubating these startups in Houston. We would be unstoppable and, more importantly, we would be ourselves. Let's help our entrepreneurial doctors, scientists, and engineers launch deep technology startups instead of trying to make apps.

2. Houston needs a structured startup program
Let's be honest, coworking space and 30-minute sessions with mentors isn't going to cut it. First-time entrepreneurs need a lot of help to gain experience and kick start their business model. What's missing is a structured program that can take a talented entrepreneur from the idea stage to raising their seed round (better or at least similar to Creative Destruction Lab or Breakout Lab).

3. Focus on helping the entrepreneurs, and the ecosystem will flourish
Any initiative around entrepreneurship that doesn't boil down to helping entrepreneurs is effectively useless. We need to pass all activities through the "entrepreneur benefit" filter. The current suite of entrepreneurship activities in Houston are skewed towards self-celebratory warm and fuzzy feeling for the ecosystem; we need to shift the attention and resources to entrepreneurs who are in the trenches trying to make it to the next level. Once we have good entrepreneurs, we will have good exits which makes investors happy and incentivize them to invest more. Those entrepreneurs then start building other companies or turn investor and this cycle gradually builds the ecosystem. What's happening now is quite the opposite; all the attention is on building the ecosystem and hoping that it's going to make everything else happen/

4. Houston could be the home for moonshots
Moonshots come from the application of deep technology, and I can't think of a better place to be the home for moonshot startups than Houston. From cure for cancer to rockets to Mars, to reversing climate change via CO2 capture and utilization. That said ideating and incubating moonshots requires vision and the appetite for risk-taking. The good news is that this model really works. As proof look at the OS Fund amazing and astronomically successful portfolio of the companies. According to Bryan Johnson, "OS Fund is investing in deep tech companies that marry hard science and technology to solve big problems and make money." We need a new breed of investment firms such as OS Fund in Houston.

Imagine if we had a portfolio of multidisciplinary deep technology startups in Houston, going through a rigorous program and had the support of the Houston industrial magnets and investors to take off. Now that's what Houston deserves.

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Moji Karimi is co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Cemvita Factory Inc.

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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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