Here's who's making the call for this year's Houston Innovation Awards. Photos courtesy

Ten Houstonians are in the hot seat for deciding the best companies and individuals in Houston's innovation ecosystem.

InnovationMap has announced its 2023 Houston Innovation Awards judging panel, which includes startup founders, nonprofit leaders, investors, corporate innovators, and more.

The 10 selected judges will evaluate applications from the nearly 400 nominations that were submitted this year. The judges will be using their expertise to evaluate the nominees' applications, which are due to InnovationMap by midnight on October 4.

Read about this year's judges below, and don't forget to secure your tickets to the November 8 event to see who the panel selects as the winners for the annual celebration of Houston innovation.

Natara Branch, CEO of Houston Exponential

Houston Exponential was founded to amplify and support the city's innovation ecosystem, and Natara Branch has been leading this initiative since appointed as CEO last year. For the second year, HX is partnering with InnovationMap on the Houston Innovation Awards.

Born in Germany and raised all around Texas, Branch — a University of Houston alumna — previously was the first African American woman to hold a vice president position at the NFL. Based in New York, she oversaw operations in various leadership roles at the NFL for over 18 years.

Barbara J. Burger, former Trailblazer Award recipient

Barbara J. Burger, former vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, was the inaugural recipient of the Trailblazer Award at the 2021 Houston Innovation Awards, which was previously called the InnovationMap Awards.

A self-proclaimed “graduate” from Chevron, she is senior adviser to Lazard, a member of the Greentown Labs Board of Directors, adviser to Syzygy Plasmonics, Epicore Biosystems, and Sparkz Inc., and several other energy transition and philanthropic roles. Burger holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Rochester, a doctoral degree in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology, and an academic honor MBA in finance from the University of California, Berkeley.

Devin Dunn, head of the Accelerator for Health Tech at TMC Innovation

As head of the Accelerator for Health Tech at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory, Devin Dunn works hands on with startups — specifically to help them refine their business models and plan to scale — every day.

Prior to joining TMCi, Dunn was an early employee at a London-based digital health startup. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Biological Basis of Behavior and Healthcare Management from the University of Pennsylvania and received her Master’s in Public Health from the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Noah Fons, senior coordinator of regional economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership

Working within regional economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership, Noah Fons has the pulse on companies expanding to Houston. Previously, he worked at Houston Exponential, so he also understands Houston's evolving innovation ecosystem. He studied economics at Rice University.

Aziz Gilani, managing director at Mercury Fund

As managing director at Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury, Aziz Gilani focuses on investments in enterprise SaaS, Cloud, and data science startups. He's worked at the firm for over 15 years.

A Kauffman Fellows Program graduate, he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Texas and his MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Gilani also serves in advisory roles for the Mayor of Houston’s Tech and Innovation Council, Seed Accelerator Rankings, and SXSW Interactive and is an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business where he teaches a course on venture capital.

Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap

For the third year, Natalie Harms will represent InnovationMap on the annual awards judging panel as the founding editor of InnovationMap the host of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Recently named the editor of EnergyCapitalHTX, a newly launched sister site to InnovationMap focused on Houston's role within the energy transition, she reports on innovation, technology, energy transition — and their impact on the city of Houston. A Houston native, she's worked as a business journalist for almost a decade and has a degree in journalism from the University of Houston and a certificate in publishing from New York University.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi and his co-founder and sister, Tara Karimi, were honored at last year's Houston Innovation Awards as the winners of the Green Impact Business award. Cemvita Factory, their fast-growing startup, uses biotech to sustainably create materials to lower its customers carbon footprints.

Prior to launching Cemvita in 2018, Karimi held leadership roles at Weatherford and Biota Technology. He serves as a board member for CleanTX and adviser to Houston-based ComboCurve Inc.

Margarita Kelrikh, associate at Latham & Watkins

As associate in the Emerging Companies group at Latham & Watkins in Houston, Margarita Kelrikh has supported the firm's growing startup clients since her appointment last year. Prior to joining the firm, she held in-house counsel positions at a few companies, including WeWork.

She received her bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago and her law degree at Columbia School of Law.

Brad Rossacci, creative director at Accenture

Brad Rossacci is creative director at Accenture, where he's worked since 2018. He also co-founded and co-hosts the Curiosity Podcast. A Texas A&M University alumnus and self-proclaimed "rebellious optimist," Rossacci is passionate about Houston and innovation.

Maggie Segrich, co-founder of Sesh Coworking

As co-founder and CFO of inclusive coworking company, Sesh Coworking, Maggie Segrich is dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. Last year, Sesh Coworking won the Female-Founded Business category for the Houston Innovation Awards.

She serves as board member for Midtown Management District, where Sesh is located, and board chair for nonprofit, Magpies & Peacocks.

A team of students from Rice University won Accenture’s 2023 Innovation Challenge with extended reality project. Photo via accenture.com

Rice University team wins innovation challenge supported by Accenture

winner, winner

A team of students from Rice University may see their award-winning idea incorporated into programming from the nonprofit Smithsonian Institution — the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex.

Rice’s Team Night Owls, made up of four undergraduates, recently won Accenture’s 2023 Innovation Challenge. The team’s winning concept: a three-month, six-town mobile bus exhibit designed to expose the Smithsonian to residents of rural areas in the U.S. One of the highlights of the exhibit would be an augmented reality/virtual reality feature.

The Rice team competed against more than 1,100 applicants. Participants were asked to “envision ways to deliver the spirit and wonder of in-person visits” at the Smithsonian to rural communities nationwide.

“Our biggest takeaway from the challenge was learning how to generate innovative ideas and then combine the best aspects from each one to include into one coherent solution,” says one of the team members, Sean Bishop.

Accenture is providing pro bono support to the Smithsonian to help turn the Rice team’s “Rural Routes” concept into reality. Ideally, the Smithsonian hopes to incorporate the team’s idea into its 2026 celebration of the country’s 250th birthday.

Officials say they liked the Rice team’s proposal because it would be a way for the organization to familiarize rural America with the Smithsonian while also collecting and displaying the stories of rural residents.

“We hope to amplify the voices of rural Americans and raise the visibility of their cultural stories,” the Smithsonian says in a statement provided to InnovationMap.

Nico Motta, a rising junior studying business and data science at Rice, says his team’s idea was born out of a desire to bring the Smithsonian to people and bring people to the Smithsonian.

“From there, two different ideas emerged that we eventually brought together. First, we connected the idea of campaign buses that allow political candidates to travel to smaller communities,” Motta tells InnovationMap. “Second, we researched existing Smithsonian initiatives and were intrigued by the Crossroads program, a stationary exhibit shipped out to community centers.”

The team then brainstormed ways to marry the two ideas. The result: the Rural Routes project.

Aside from Motta and Bishop, members of the Rice team are Eva Moughan, a rising junior studying math and operations research at Rice, and Austin Tran, a rising junior studying business and statistics.

Bishop, a rising senior studying chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice, says the Rural Routes entry stood out partly because the team:

  • Dug into how to finance the exhibit.
  • Supplied examples of similar projects that have achieved success.
  • Folded augmented reality/virtual reality into the project.

Organizers believe the Rice team’s winning entry embodies the competition’s goal this year to generate “bold ideas and innovative thinking” about introducing more Americans to the Smithsonian.

“The Accenture Innovation Challenge invites students seeking to do well and do good to collaborate on solving real and real-time business challenges for leading nonprofits. The students’ innovative ideas make the nonprofit better able to achieve its mission, and together we work to implement the winning solution,” says Marty Rodgers, senior managing director of Accenture’s U.S. south region and executive sponsor of the Accenture Innovation Challenge.

P97 Networks, a Houston-based mobile payments company, has fresh funds to scale its operations. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based mobile commerce startup secures $40M to scale its SaaS business

money moves

A Houston company that has created a mobile commerce platform for the convenience retail, fuels marketing, and automotive industries has fresh funding to support its growth.

P97 Networks has raised $40 million of venture debt financing from an affiliate of Peak Rock Capital, a leading middle-market private investment firm, according to a news release from the company.

“We will use this new capital to fund P97’s high growth initiatives, which include accelerating user adoption across our Consumer Engagement platform, Energy Transition programs for our clients, and our Mobility Services platform,” said Donald Frieden, president and CEO of P97, in the release.

Frieden says that over the past 18 months, the company has doubled the number of sites on its platform, which includes five largest energy brands in the world, and over 60,000 convenience retail sites in North America.

“With this new capital, we will continue to grow our install base and strategic partnerships," Frieden continues. "We look forward to working with Peak Rock to bring our company to its next stage of growth and further establish our position as the leading provider of mobile commerce technology in the convenience & fuel retailing industry.”

P97's last raise was a series B round in 2019 that saw contribution from Accenture. The startup's series A closed in 2014 and was led by Emerald Technology Ventures.

The company's platform operates as a payments platform as well as a digital marketing solution that prioritizes payment security and customer customization.

“P97 has become the industry standard in the convenience retail and fuel marketing industry, and we are very pleased to help the company reach its next level of scale and growth,” says Nick Basso, managing director at Peak Rock Capital. “We are excited by the compelling opportunities ahead for P97 as the market for mobile payment solutions continues to expand and gain broad adoption by consumers.”

Last year, P97 announced a partnership with Chevron that meant implementing the digital platform into more than 7,800 Chevron and Texaco retail stations across the country.

“Chevron is dedicated to providing products and services for people on the go and continuing to address their needs in the retail of the future,” says Harry Hazen, Chevron senior manager of Americas Marketing, in a 2021 press release. “Our collaboration with P97 strengthens that commitment – delivering a premium consumer experience at Chevron and Texaco locations by enabling our offerings with consistency, speed, consumer value, and security.”

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Allie Danziger of Ampersand Professionals, Jane Stricker of the Greater Houston Partnership, and Summer Reeves of Accenture's Houston Fjord Studio. 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 — from energy to design innovation — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Allie Danziger, co-founder and CEO of Ampersand Professionals

The ongoing trend of businesses struggling to onboard new employees is likely going to continue through the new year. Allie Danziger shares what you need to know. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

The Great Resignation is among us, and companies need to respond accordingly, Allie Danziger, CEO and co-founder of Ampersand Professionals, writes in her guest column for InnovationMap.

"It has been particularly difficult to hire and retain Gen Z employees, the newest generation in the workforce, as we navigate the expectations of these employees, as compared to past generations," she writes. "Fortunately, businesses can bounce back from 'The Great Resignation' or protect themselves before they experience a similar mass exodus by taking the time to understand employees' preferences and motivations, and make a few small changes accordingly."

Danziger shares four tips with hiring and retaining talent in this challenging time. Click here to read more.

Jane Stricker, executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative at the GHP

The former BP executive will lead Houston's role in the energy transition as the executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, a brand new position at the Greater Houston Partnership. Photo courtesy of GHP

Jane Stricker, a longtime Houston-based executive at oil and gas giant BP, has been tapped to be the executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative and senior vice president of energy transition.

The Greater Houston Partnership unveiled HETI in June. As the partnership explained then, HETI "aims to drive sustainable and equitable economic growth in the Greater Houston region through a portfolio of technology, policy, and market initiatives that scale and export solutions for realizing a low-carbon energy world."

"This is an exciting time for Houston and our energy ecosystem as we focus our efforts on leading the global energy transition," Stricker says. "The challenge of our lifetime is addressing this dual challenge of meeting increased global energy demand while confronting global climate change. Houston is known for solving problems that matter. I believe through innovation, collaboration, and focus, our region can lead the way and deliver solutions that change the world." Click here to read more.

Summer Reeves, director of Accenture's Houston Fjord studio

Summer Reeves says Houston is changing for the better when it comes to attracting design talent. Photo courtesy of Accenture

The winds have changed in Houston when it comes to attracting design talent, Summer Reeves — the director of Accenture's Houston Fjord studio — says on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Reeves is currently responsible for growing the team of Accenture's new Houston Fjord studio. She say she's excited for the way the design industry in Houston has developed. It's been second chair to Austin on the Texas landscape, but that's changing.

"There's a reason why Accenture is building a Fjord studio here in Houston — and now, versus in the past," Reeves says.

She describes Austin employers overly competitive for designers — making it hard to attract and retain design talent. This has caused a wave of designers coming to Houston. She's also seeing Houston employers — mostly in the energy industry — shift their thinking in hiring these types of positions. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Summer Reeves, the director of Accenture's Houston Fjord studio, says Houston is changing for the better when it comes to attracting design talent. Photo courtesy of Accenture

This expert shares why Houston has a bright future as a design-led innovation city

Houston innovators podcast episode 110

When you think of design in terms of the role it plays in innovation and technology, you might picture a graphic designer or maybe one step in a product's path to market. But for Summer Reeves, design is an integral part of the entire innovation process.

"When people think about design, they think about visual design — UX/UI digital products," Reeves says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "But what we do from a service design or, what I like to say, a holistic design approach is very different."

Reeves is the director of the Houston Fjord studio — which operates under Accenture Interactive. She's currently standing up the new studio in Houston, which has iterations across the world from Austin and New York to Barcelona and Singapore. The new studio in Houston will help Accenture clients think through the design of their solutions, rather than jump the gun on deploying a technology.

"We want to be a design-led company," Reeves says. "Fjord is what I call the tip of the spear of what we do."

Fjord's design team focus on understanding the root cause of the problem, who's impacted, and what the scale of the solution should be. On the podcast, she gives the example of a coffee shop that wants a mobile app to engage with customers. Reeves says rather than just creating the app, Fjord would look at what the customer wants via surveys and observations.

"It's human nature to jump to solutioning," she says, "but we need to do research to make sure that's the right call."

Reeves is currently responsible for growing the team of the studio — something not too unfamiliar to her. She was instrumental in setting up Accenture's Houston Innovation Center. She say she's excited for the way the design industry in Houston has developed. It's been second chair to Austin on the Texas landscape, but that's changing.

"There's a reason why Accenture is building a Fjord studio here in Houston — and now, versus in the past," Reeves says.

She describes Austin employers overly competitive for designers — making it hard to attract and retain design talent. This has caused a wave of designers coming to Houston. She's also seeing Houston employers — mostly in the energy industry — shift their thinking in hiring these types of positions.

Reeves shares more on the intersection between design and innovation — as well as how COVID-19 affected consulting — on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Digital Fight Club is making its triumphant Houston return next week. Have you gotten your virtual tickets? Photo by Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Interactive Houston innovation event pivots to virtual platform for engaging discussions

ready to fight?

In 2019, Houston innovators went head to head for the first Houston Digital Fight Club. While COVID-19 postponed a repeat match-up, the organizers have teamed up to put on a virtual event like none other.

Dallas-based Digital Fight Club, which first premiered in 2016, was founded by Michael Pratt who wanted the event structure to be intentionally different from your run-of-the-mill tech networking events. In Digital Fight Club, two innovation specialists "fight" against one another, with a referee steering the conversation, and the audience is involved and votes in real time for the winner.

The event came to Houston two years ago, presented by Accenture, and the two organizations wanted to be able to replicate the high-energy event online for 2021. (Note: InnovationMap is on the steering committee for the event.)

"We as Accenture are stoked to bring back Digital Fight club to our amazing city where provocative Houston topics will be debated by some of H-Town's most brilliant minds," says Accenture Houston Innovation Hub's Jessica Guerrero, who serves as the associate hub director.

The previous Houston event covered innovative topics, such as artificial intelligence, the future of primary care, and technology's hold on humans. Check out overheard moments and photos from the last event.

"Houston's well deserved reputation as an innovation city is the perfect ingredient for Digital Fight Club," Pratt tells InnovationMap. "What better forum to see the best minds debate the most pressing issues in business and technology."

Through the work of the two teams, Digital Fight Club will return to Houston on Tuesday, October 26, at 7 pm, virtually. Tickets are $20 per person and can be purchased online. This year's topics and fighters includes:

  • Energy Transition: What technology is king to get us there? Fighters: Moji Karimi, CEO of Cemvita Factory, vs Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics
  • Space Race: Who will lead space commercialization? Fighters: Trent Martin, vice president of aerospace at Intuitive Machines, vs Steve Gonzalez, partner at Seldor Capital (retired NASA)
  • Digital Divide: The greatest barrier to bridging the divide? Fighters: Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc, vs Jesse Martinez, co-founder of LatinX Startup Alliance
  • Sweet Teams are Made of This: The post-pandemic employee experience. Fighters: Brad Deutser, CEO of Deutser, vs Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard
  • Innovation in a Virtual World: Impossible? Fighters: Lawson Gow, founder of The Cannon, vs Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc.

Each fighter will open with 45 seconds each, followed by two 30 seconds rebuttals each. Referees will have a chance to ask a follow up, then each fighter will respond for 15 seconds. Referees include:

  • Mary Beth Gracy, managing director of Accenture's Houston office
  • Scott Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs
  • Sam Gunderson, director of partnership development at NASA
  • Elizabeth Haines McGee, director of innovation and engagement at Intel
  • Steve Rader, deputy director of collaborative innovation at NASA

Clearly, you shouldn't expect your average business event call. The platform that's hosting the event allows for attendees to join "rooms" with friends, coworkers, and more. Within the rooms, you can chat about the fighter's argument and even respond with emojis. You can even throw a tomato at a fighter you disagree with.

"As an attendee get ready to move beyond the traditional Zoom call and be immersed in an interactive environment where you can cheer on your favorite fights or even show your disagreement with digital tomatoes, all from your own virtual pink couch," Guerrero says. "So grab your favorite humans, come attend this entertaining experience and witness the throw down."

The virtual edition of Digital Fight Club first took place in Dallas. Now the interactive event is coming to Houston. Photo courtesy of Accenture

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Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.

Texas organization grants $68.5M to Houston institutions for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.