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METRO launches self-driving shuttle, Data Gumbo hires new exec, and more Houston innovation news

METRO launches a driver-less route, Houston biotech company raises millions, and more quick innovation news. Courtesy of METRO

So much Houston innovation news — so little time. In order to help keep in touch with all the news happening among startups and technology in Houston, we're hitting the highlights in this innovation news roundup.

If you know of innovation-focused news happening, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details and subscribe to our daily newsletter that sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.


METRO launches a self-driving shuttle on Texas Southern University's campus

Courtesy of Metro

The first autonomous shuttle in Houston recently had its maiden voyage on Texas Southern University's campus. The route is a one-mile stretch that is called the "Tiger Walk.' The EasyMile shuttle can transport 12 passengers and is operated by First Transit. The project is a pilot program for METRO to see if it has successful applications in other public transportation efforts.

"When passengers board this all electric vehicle they will be riding into the future and experiencing a mode of transportation that in just a few years may become commonplace," says METRO Chair Carrin Patman in a release.

The first phase of the pilot kicked off June 5, as reported in a previous InnovationMap article.

After being deemed a hot tech company by Crunchbase, Data Gumbo grows its C-suite

Courtesy of Data Gumbo

In June, Data Gumbo was named among Crunchbase's top 50 hottest tech companies. The list looked for growing tech startups that have raised between $5 million and $20 million, with a recent round closing in the past six months. The Houston-based company closed its most recent round of $6 million in the spring.

Following the round completion, Data Gumbo's CEO, Andrew Bruce, noted the funds were intended to further develop the company's technology and grow the team. As of last week, Bruce made good on the promise and announced the company's new chief commercial officer, Sergio A. Tuberquia.

"As our new capital is being used to expand our commercial blockchain network, we are also expanding our internal teams to support our rapid global growth," says Bruce in a news release. "With Sergio joining to lead revenue efforts, this will further our company's mission to help oil and gas companies — and ultimately all industries -—realize greater efficiencies and cost savings in the supply chain. Sergio's mix of startup technology and oil and gas industry experience will greatly benefit Data Gumbo and its customers as the industry moves into digital oilfield solutions like blockchain."

Biotech company extends its Series D round to $43 million

Getty Images

Following a $20 million commitment from Sanford Health, Houston-based InGeneron Inc. has extended its Series D round to $43 million. The funds will go toward further developing the company's regenerative medicine and cell therapy. InGeneron currently has a clinical study for rotator cuff recovery.

The investment by South Dakota-based Sanford Health was announced in March, and last month, InGeneron made the call to expand the series.

"Sanford Health's continued support helps advance InGeneron's regenerative cell therapy into the expansive pivotal trial phase, a significant step toward bringing our therapy into the clinic," says Angelo Moesslang, CEO of InGeneron, in a release. "This is an exciting time for the company, as one of the largest health systems in the United States further affirms the potential of adipose-derived regenerative cell therapy, while we diligently work to make it available to patients."

Rice Business Plan winner to ring the Nasdaq bell

Courtesy of Rice University

The company that won the top prize at the Rice Business Plan Competition and walked away with almost $700,000 is claiming another one of its prizes. Vita Inclinata Technologies will ring the opening bell at Nasdaq on July 3.

The company, which created a technology to advance helicopter safety, will be represented by its CEO, Caleb Carr, and Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, and Will Roper, the U.S. Air Force's assistant secretary for acquisition, will also attend. The livestream footage is available online, beginning at 8:30 am central.

Mercury Fund raising money

Texas Money

Getty Images

Crunchbase broke the news that Houston-based Mercury Fund has secured $82 million of its fourth fund, Mercury Fund Ventures IV, that will total $125 million, per a regulatory filing that PE Hub reported on. Mercury Fund refused to comment on the ongoing raise, but intends to release more information following the close, a representative confirmed to InnovationMap.

According to Crunchbase's proprietary data, it's the largest fund to date for the firm. The most recent fund closed in 2014 at $105 million. Mercury Fund specializes in SaaS, cloud, and data science technology, according to its website.

Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine researcher recognized

Courtesy of Rice University

Olga Dudchenko, a genomics researcher at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine, been named to MIT Technology Review magazine's 2019 list of 35 Innovators Under 35.

Dudchenko, who is completing her postdoctoral fellowship at Rice's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, has developed a method to sequence and assemble the genome of any organism for less than $1,000. Her process is comparable the that of the Human Genome Project, which cost $3 billion.

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From biomolecular research to oral cancer immunotherapy, here are three research projects to watch out for in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, a couple local scientists are honored by awards while another duo of specialists tackle a new project.

University of Houston professor recognized with award

Mehmet Orman of UH has been selected to receive an award for his research on persister cells. Photo via UH.edu

Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation. The award comes with a $500,000 grant to study persister cells — cells that go dormant and then become tolerant to extraordinary levels of antibiotics.

"Nearly all bacterial cultures contain a small population of persister cells," says Orman in a news release. "Persisters are thought to be responsible for recurring chronic infections such as those of the urinary tract and for creating drug-resistant mutants."

Previously, Orman developed the first methods to directly measure the metabolism of persister cells. He also developed cell sorting strategies to segregate persisters from highly heterogeneous bacterial cell populations, and, according to the release, he will be using his methods in the NSF research project.

Houston researchers collaborate on oral cancer innovation

Dr. Simon Young of UTHealth and Jeffrey Hartgerink of Rice University are working on a new use for an innovative gel they developed. Photo via Rice.edu

Two Houston researchers — chemist and bioengineer Jeffrey Hartgerink at Rice University and Dr. Simon Young at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — have again teamed up to advance their previous development of a sophisticated hydrogel called STINGel. This time, they are using it to destroy oral cancer tumors.

SynerGel combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors. Once there, the gel controls the release of its cargo to not only trigger cells' immune response but also to remove other suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment. The duo reported on the technology in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering.

SynerGel, combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors, where they not only control the release of the drugs but also remove suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment.

"We are really excited about this new material," Hartgerink says in a news release. "SynerGel is formulated from a specially synthesized peptide which itself acts as an enzyme inhibitor, but it also assembles into a nanofibrous gel that can entrap and release other drugs in a controlled fashion.

In 2018, the pair published research on the use of a multidomain peptide gel — the original STINGel — to deliver ADU-S100, an immunotherapy drug from a class of "stimulator of interferon gene (STING) agonists."

The research is supported by the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Welch Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology.

Texas Heart Institute researcher honored by national organization

Dr. James Martin of Texas Heart Institute has been named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors. Photo courtesy of THI

The National Academy of Inventors have named Houston-based Texas Heart Institute's Dr. James Martin, director of the Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab, a senior member.

Martin is an internationally recognized developmental and regenerative biologist and his research is focused on understanding how signaling pathways are related to development and tissue regeneration.

"Dr. Martin has long been a steward of scientific advancement and has proven to be a tremendous asset to the Texas Heart Institute and to its Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab through his efforts to translate fundamental biological discoveries in cardiac development and disease into novel treatment strategies for cardiac regeneration," says Dr. Darren Woodside, vice president for research at THI, in a news release. "Everyone at the Texas Heart Institute is thrilled for Dr. Martin, whose induction into the NAI as a Senior Member is well-deserved."

Martin has authored over 170 peer-reviewed papers in top journals he holds nine U.S. patents and applications, including one provisional application, all of which have been licensed to Yap Therapeutics, a company he co-founded.

The full list of incoming NAI Senior Members, which includes three professionals from the University of Houston, is available on the NAI website.

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