who's who

3 Houston innovators with fresh funds to know this week

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes three founders celebrating recent funding — Omair Tariq of Cart.com, Moji Karimi of Cemvita Factory, and Moody Heard of Buildforce. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — who each recently announced new funding — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Omair Tariq, CEO of Cart.com

Omair Tariq's Cart.com raised a big round last week. Photo via Cart.com

Cart.com, an end-to-end e-commerce software startup, announced the close of its series B round at $98 million last week, which brings the company's total funding to $140 million since it launched eight months ago.

"At Cart.com, we believe e-commerce brands should be free to scale up without having to juggle countless outside vendors, and without compromising their unique vision for their brand," says Omair Tariq, CEO of Cart.com, in the release. "Our one-stop platform supports sellers across the full range of e-commerce functionality, empowering them to efficiently scale up and reach new markets using proven, best-of-breed services and technologies."

The new funding will go toward further developing the Cart.com platform. Click here to read more.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi has something to celebrate after last week's news. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita Factory announced the initial close of its series A round. Founded by brother-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, the company's technology biomimics photosynthesis to take carbon dioxide and turn it into something else. Cemvita uses this synthetic biology to decarbonize heavy industry across chemical manufacturing, mining, and oil and gas.

"Decarbonizing heavy industry is one of the most critical challenges in addressing climate change," says Moji Karimi, who serves as CEO, in a news release. "Synthetic biology is now primed to revolutionize heavy industries because of its inherent low-carbon advantages, and Cemvita is taking the lead in identifying and derisking the key applications." Click here to read more.

Moody Heard, CEO of BuildForce

Houston-based Buildforce is developing a technology to better connect contractors and the trade professionals they employ. Photo courtesy of Buildforce

Houston-based construction app Buildforce closed its latest round of funding at $4 million. The round was led by Maryland-based TDF Ventures, with participation from existing investor Houston-based Mercury Fund and Austin-based S3 Ventures.

The company uses construction staffing and management software to more efficiently connect contractors to skilled workers across trades — electrical, mechanical, plumbing, flooring, concrete, painting, and more.

"Contractors depend on skilled and reliable tradespeople to meet project timelines," says Moody Heard, co-founder and CEO of Buildforce, in a news release. "Our key insight is that by optimizing the user experience for skilled tradespeople seeking higher pay and job security, we are able to help meet contractors' needs. We're thrilled to have become the partner of choice for the top contractors in our current markets looking to connect with this workforce." Click here to read more.

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From a low-cost vaccine to an app that can help reduce exposure, here are the latest COVID-focused and Houston-based research projects. Photo via Getty Images

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

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