for the children

Houston startup with life-saving innovation receives $2M grant

Houston-based PolyVascular has invented a polymer-based heart valve for children with congenital heart disease. Photo courtesy of TMC Innovation

A $2 million federal grant will enable Houston-based PolyVascular to launch human trials of what it hails as the first polymer-based heart valve for children.

In conjunction with the grant, Dr. Will Clifton has joined the medical device company as chief operating officer. He will oversee the grant as principal investigator, and will manage the company's operations and R&D. Clifton is president and co-founder of Houston-based Enventure, a medical innovation incubator and education hub. He previously was senior director of medical affairs at Houston-based Procyrion, a clinical-stage medical device company.

PolyVascular's Phase II grant came from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which promotes technological projects.

The PolyVascular heart valve will help treat congenital heart disease affecting more than 1 million around the world. PolyVascular plans to launch clinical trials of the valve in children 5 and over within two years.

"Congenital heart disease remains the most common category of birth defect and a leading cause of childhood death in the developed world," reads a March 30 news release from PolyVascular, founded in 2014.

PolyVascular says the valve can be implanted without surgery, and can avoid the use of valve replacements from humans or animals. Those valve replacements are difficult to find and often don't last too long, leading to frequent follow-up surgeries.

"Our aim at PolyVascular is to transform the care of children with congenital heart disease by developing an entirely new generation of valves made of medical-grade polymer devoid of any biological tissue," Dr. Henri Justino, chief medical officer at PolyVascular, says in a release. "The valves in use so far for children have been made of biological tissue. Unfortunately, our immune systems target and destroy this biological tissue, sometimes rapidly, rendering the valve ineffective."

The SBIR grant isn't the only win for PolyVascular in recent years.

In 2019, the startup came away with several honors in the 2019 Texas A&M New Ventures Competition. It won the pitch competition (complete with a $5,000 cash award), and received the Biotex Investment Prize, Amerra Visualization Services Prize, and GOOSE Society Investment Prize.

Also in 2019, PolyVascular, a member of TMCx's 2017 medical device cohort, won in the medical device and health disparities and equity categories at the fifth annual Impact Pediatric Health pitch competition. Additionally, the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium granted the company up to $25,000.

Last year, MedTech Innovator, a nonprofit accelerator in the medical technology sector, announced PolyVascular was one of 50 companies chosen to participate in the organization's flagship four-month accelerator program.

"During these uncertain and challenging times, the need for health innovations — specifically those that promise to deliver long-term value to the health care system and patients — is more critical than ever," said Paul Grand, CEO of MedTech Innovator.

Another Houston startup, Vivante Health, also was picked for the MedTech Innovator program. Vivante is a digital health company that helps people address digestive health and wellness.

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Building Houston

 
 

SeekerPitch exists to update the job hiring process in a way that benefits both the job seekers and recruiters. Photo via Getty Images

Companies across the country have been requiring resumes and cover letters from their new hire hopefuls since the World War II era, and it's about time that changed. A startup founded in Houston has risen to the occasion.

Houstonian Samantha Hepler had the idea for SeekerPitch when she was looking for her next move. She felt like she had developed a formidable career in digital transformation and had worked with big name clients from Chevron to Gucci. However, she couldn't even get an interview for a role she felt she would be a shoe-in for.

"I knew if I could just get through the door, a company would see the value in me," Hepler tells InnovationMap. "I wasn't being seen, and I wasn't being heard. I didn't know a way to do that."

And she wasn't alone in this frustration. Hepler says she discovered she was one of the 76 percent of job candidates who get filtered out based on former job titles and keywords. At the same time, Hepler says she discovered that 80 percent of companies reported difficulty finding talent.

Samantha Hepler had the idea for SeekerPitch based on her own ill-fated job hunt experience. Photo courtesy of SeekerPitch

"I was just a symptom of a larger problem companies were facing," Hepler says. "Companies were using algorithms to dilute their talent pool, and then the hires they were making weren't quality because they were looking for people based on what they've done. They weren't looking at people for what they could do."

SeekerPitch, which is in the current cohort of gBETA Houston, allows job seekers to create an account and tell their story — not just their job history. The platform prioritizes video content and quick interviews so that potential hires can get face-to-face with hiring managers.

"We empower companies to hear the candidates' stories," Hepler says. "We're bringing candidates streaming to computer screens. We are the Netflix of recruiting."

Hepler gives an example of a first-generation college graduate who's got "administrative assistant" and "hostess" on her resume — but who has accomplished so much more than that. She put herself through school with no debt and in three years instead of four. SeekerPitch allows for these types of life accomplishments and soft skills into the recruiting process.

SeekerPitch profiles allow job seekers to tell their story — not just their past job experience. Photo courtesy of SeekerPitch

Over the past few years, a trend in hiring has been in equity and diversity, and Hepler says that people have been trying to address this with blurring out people's names and photos.

"Our belief is that connection is the antidote to bias," Hepler says, mentioning a hypothetical job candidate who worked at Walmart because they couldn't afford to take multiple unpaid internships. "They can't come alive on a resume and they won't stand a chance next to another person."

SeekerPitch is always free for job seekers, and, through the end of the year, it's also free for companies posting job positions. Beginning in January 2022, it will cost $10 per day to list a job opening. Also next year — Hepler says she'll be opening a round of pre-seed funding in order to grow her team. So far, the company has been bootstrapped, thanks to re-appropriated funding from Hepler's canceled wedding. (She opted for a cheaper ceremony instead.)

Right now, SeekerPitch sees an opportunity to support growing startups that need to make key hires — and quickly. The company has an ongoing pilot partnership with a Houston startup that is looking to hiring over a dozen positions in a month.

"As a startup, your key hires are going to make or break your company — but you have to hire quickly," Hepler says. "That's the ultimate challenge for startups. ... But if you don't hire well it can cost your company a lot of money or be the demise of your company. It's people who make a company great."

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