who's who

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Stephanie Campbell of HAN and The Artemis Fund, Larry Lawson of Proxima Clinical Research, and Vanessa Wyche of the Johnson Space Center. 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 — from medical device development to fintech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network and general partner at The Artemis Fund

Local investment leader talks trends in Houston venture capital activity

Stephanie Campbell joins the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to share some trends in early-stage investing. Photo courtesy of HAN

There were so many question marks at the beginning of the pandemic, especially for startup funding. Stephanie Campbell, who manages the most active angel network as well as a venture capital fund, says no one was sure how anything was going to pan out. Now, looking back on last year, VC did ok, she says on the Houston Innovators Podcast, and the Houston Angel Network saw membership growth.

"I think that given the markets with quite a bit of liquidity, people were looking for new and interesting ways to invest and make a return," Campbell says on the podcast. "In 2020, we actually grew by 30 percent and are up to 130 members of the Houston Angel Network and are continuing to grow through 2021."

Campbell shares more of her observations on the show and what she's focused on next. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Larry Lawson, co-founder of Proxima Clinical Research

Larry Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about his startup's recent exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, his investment activity, and more. Photo courtesy of Larry Lawson

When Larry Lawson started his career in the medical device industry, it was hard to get funding. The health tech founder and investor says if it wasn't oil or real estate, banks couldn't understand well enough to make a loan. So, he bootstrapped, raised from friends and family, and found venture capital support for his business endeavors over the years. Now, he's celebrating a $1.4 billion exit of his last business, Preventice Solutions, a deal that closed earlier this year.

The ecosystem in Houston has changed, he says, and he's seen it evolve as the Texas Medical Center grew and the Rice Business Plan Competition brought impressive student innovators from all around the globe.

"The health science community here in Houston is now known all over the world," he tells InnovationMap. "It's gonna just continue to grow and develop, and I hope to be a part of continue to be a part of it." Click here to read more.

Vanessa Wyche, director of Johnson Space Center

Vanessa Wyche is the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. Photo courtesy of NASA

For the first time, NASA has a Black woman at the helm of a space center. Vanessa Wyche has been named director of Johnson Space Center in Houston after serving as acting director since May 3.

"Vanessa is a tenacious leader who has broken down barriers throughout her career," Pam Melroy, deputy administrator of NASA, says in a news release. "Vanessa's more than three decades at NASA and program experience in almost all of the human spaceflight programs at Johnson is an incredible asset to the agency. In the years to come, I'm confident that Houston will continue to lead the way in human spaceflight."

As director of Johnson Space Center, Wyche now leads more than 10,000 NASA employees and contractors. Click here to read more.

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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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