For the second year, Curtis Jackson's program supported Houston student entrepreneurs. Photo courtesy of G-Unity

The 50 Cent-backed high school entrepreneurship program wrapped up its second year of operation after helping over 100 Houston-area students build their small business plans.

G-Unity Business Labs, sponsored by Curtis James Jackson III — better known as 50 Cent — and Horizon International Group, allowed participants to build their own small businesses from the ground up. This year's cohort featured a variety of businesses, from a Caribbean hot dog food truck to a financial literacy course on personal finance.

In its second year, the program encouraged innovation and taught business acumen to entrepreneurial-minded high school students, culminating in an opportunity to create their dream companies. During this 28 week entrepreneurial internship program, around 150 students from Madison, Worthing, Yates, Kashmere, Booker T. Washington, and Wheatley high schools learned how to transform an idea they were passionate about into a full fledged product they can pitch to investors.

The after-school program consists of three stages – the first 20 weeks are about getting familiar with business concepts and building connections with peers and teacher volunteers. The next eight weeks are spent in the incubation phase as students are split up into teams and local entrepreneurs lead lessons, helping them workshop their ideas into a fleshed out corporation, before finally the teams compete in Hustle Tank, where students pitch their ideas to a panel of celebrity and entrepreneurial judges. At the event in May, the panel included 50 Cent and Mattress Mack. The five winning teams are now eligible to split $500,000 in seed money for their companies.

Summer Reeves, VP of design of Umbridge, is in charge of managing the incubation phase and said she has noticed a significant shift in the ideas the student groups have come up with between the two cohorts of the program; the first year saw flashier tech pitches. But during the second year of the program, Reeves said the students sought to address issues they see in their day-to-day lives, including a group who worked to develop support services to aid formerly incarcerated individuals after they are released.

“This year, a lot of students were more on the practical side,” Reeves tells InnovationMap. “We actually had three teams that were focused on mental health apps which I think is a great example of what youth today are really focused on.”

Reeves started off as a mentor to four teams during the incubation phase of the program last year providing students with guidance on how to set up their business plans, create prototypes, and pitch their companies to investors. After three of her teams won the Hustle Tank competition previously, she took over planning the incubation phase and recruiting other local entrepreneurs to act as mentors.

“We give them recommendations on how to pitch and how to frame their pitch but they also have the ability to get creative so we had some students who did short skits — some that did raps and spoken word type things — lots of creativity,” Reeves says.

Patrice Allen, senior manager of G-Unity Business Labs, said they use the students’ individual strengths and creative thought processes to place them into their teams, including asking them in interviews at the beginning of the year to try to sell her a pen to understand their pitching process.

“That’s the question the students always remember,” Allen says. “‘Sell us this pen or pick something out and sell it to us.’ It’s the weirdest thing and they love it.”

In building the teams at each school, Allen worked with educators to make sure every team had students with a variety of communication and planning skills as well as financial awareness. But Allen felt students were most successful when they incorporated their personal interests into their product design. The first place team of Hustle Tank, Caribbean Hot Dog Boyz, was especially emblematic of this mindset as they combined one member's background of selling hotdogs with another’s Caribbean heritage to create a food truck that sells the unexpected combo of oxtail hotdogs.

The first place team of Hustle Tank 2023 was Caribbean Hot Dog Boyz. Photo via @gunitybusinesslab/Instagram

“To actually taste the food that they prepared was phenomenal,” Allen says “I have never ever thought that oxtails on a hotdog would be good but everybody was floored.”

Elizabeth Martin, director of communications and marketing for Horizon who runs the behind the scenes of funding, said students from the winning teams are now working on solidifying their business plans to qualify for the funds from the G-Unity foundation to develop their companies. Martin also said 50 Cent will retain a relationship with these teams, acting with varying levels of involvement depending on his deal with the students as anything from a silent partner to an investor.

“They do not walk home with $500,000 in their back pocket,” Martin explains. “We are investing in (them) — not giving — it’s an investment.”

The future of this program is uncertain as the Texas Education Association’s takeover of HISD is still in its transition phase but Martin advised to keep a lookout for an ABC Nightline interview of 50 Cent discussing G-Unity Business Labs, which is expected to release soon.

"I’ve spent years donating my time and energy to communities in need. I started G-Unity to do the same—to give back to kids so they have it a little easier than I did," Jackson writes on the website. "Team building and entrepreneurship are skills I learned along the way, but they are so important to develop early. I look forward to G-Unity supporting programs that are doing the crucial work of teaching kids to excel at life.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sameer Soleja of Molecule, Gabriela Gerhart of The Motherhood center, and 50 Cent. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — software, education, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his startup's recent fundraise — and how he's planning on being at the forefront of the evolving electricity commodities industry. Photo courtesy of Molecule

A 9-year-old software startup has been reinvigorated by fresh funds and a new opportunity to emerge as a leader in enterprise software for commodities — especially for electricity traders. Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the company's latest funding round — a $12 million series A.

"The commodities industry is looking really hard at electricity as the growth commodity of the 2020s — renewables and conventionally generated electricity," Soleja says. "Everybody in our client base and in the market is looking at electricity. Well, we happen to have more than have of our customer base be in electricity."

Click here to listen to the podcast and read more.

Gabriela Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center

Houston entrepreneur recounts journey from communism to U.S. success in new book

Gabriela Gerhart recounts her journey from communism to American success in her new book. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Gerhart

Gabriela Gerhart remembers that day, back in 1989, when her teacher walked into her classroom in Czechoslovakia and announced that communism was over. Further, she told the group that everything she'd been teaching them was a lie.

Gerhart was stunned.

"It was confusing," she tells CultureMap. "You think to yourself, 'was I fooled? Was I indoctrinated? 'You have to understand, I had no idea there was another world out there."

Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center on West Alabama Street unpacks those feelings and others in her new autobiography, After The Fall, a story of growing up in Central Europe under communism and following her own wanderlust to the States, where she fell in love, got married, and built a successful business.

Click here to read more.

Rapper 50 Cent really means business. 50 Cent/Twitter

Rap star and Newstonian 50 Cent is giving back to area schools in need of help. The recently relocated rapper/producer/entrepreneur/rodeo wine bidder is teaming up with the Houston Independent School District and Horizon United Group to bolster entrepreneurship programs at Kashmere, Worthing, and Wheatley high schools.

He has funded the project with a $600,000 donation, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on May 17.

Dubbed the G-Unity Business Lab, the new program will encourage students to engage in MBA-level lessons that represent the full lifecycle of a product or concept, from idea creation, to market branding, to even running a company, a press release notes.

Click here to read more.

Rapper 50 Cent really means business. 50 Cent/Twitter

50 Cent bankrolls new Houston high school business program with $600,000 donation

entrepreneurship

Rap star and Newstonian 50 Cent is giving back to area schools in need of help. The recently relocated rapper/producer/entrepreneur/rodeo wine bidder is teaming up with the Houston Independent School District and Horizon United Group to bolster entrepreneurship programs at Kashmere, Worthing, and Wheatley high schools.

He has funded the project with a $600,000 donation, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on May 17.

Dubbed the G-Unity Business Lab, the new program will encourage students to engage in MBA-level lessons that represent the full lifecycle of a product or concept, from idea creation, to market branding, to even running a company, a press release notes.

Starting fall 2021, selected students from Kashmere, Worthing, and Wheatley high schools will work with HISD educators, Houston business leaders, and the G-Unity Foundation to complete an after-school course.

The curriculum and concepts align with the core values preached by 50 Cent (nee Curtis Jackson) in his book, Hustle Harder, Hustle Smarter.

Utilizing a Shark Tank- styled competition, student work will be judged by 50 Cent, Al Kashani, president of Horizon United Group, and other community leaders. Winners will receive seed money to begin their businesses that are incubated in Houston.

"It's great to be giving back to this community that's already given me so much," said 50 Cent in a statement. "These young kids can do great things if they just have the right skills and tools. This program is going to help get them there."

Turner noted that the plan lines up with his initiative to create jobs. "I am deeply grateful to Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson for investing in Houston ISD students," he said in a release. "This program will have a big impact on the lives of students and their families. It will provide a platform to help young people grow their skillset by learning how to be future entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, and business leaders."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.