3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Heath Butler and Samantha Lewis of Mercury Fund and Adam Kuspa of the Welch Foundation. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across the city — each in their own ways financially support the region's top innovators.


Heath Butler and Samantha Lewis of Mercury Fund

Heath Butler has been promoted to managing director of Mercury Fund, and Samantha Lewis joins the firm as principal. Photos courtesy

Houston-based Mercury Fund, which focuses on early-stage startups located in central United States, announced the promotion of Heath Butler to managing director from network partner. Additionally, Samantha Lewis — formerly investment director at Houston-based Goose Capital — is joining the fund as principal.

"Over the past few years, we've continued to build our investment team with top talent from our ecosystem," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release.

"The promotion of Heath and the addition of Samantha will further Mercury's early-stage venture leadership in Middle America, and is illustrative of Mercury's deep commitment to diversity as a core value driver," continues Garrou. Click here to read more.

Adam Kuspa of The Welch Foundation

Adam Kuspa of The Welch Foundation joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, materials science, and more. Photo courtesy of The Welch Foundation

It's been an interesting year for Adam Kuspa and the Welch Foundation as — just like any other organization — the pandemic has caused various disruptions for Kuspa and his team. At the same time, COVID-19 has forced an unprecedented public-private response from the medical community, the government, and more.

"I'm very proud of the scientific enterprise in this country and around the world — they way it's been supported, developed, and maintained over the years — to allow for something like this be even contemplated," Kuspa says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Over the last 40 to 50 years, researchers in the fields immunology, vaccine research, protein biochemistry, and more, have seen increased support, Kuspa says, and that's what made a difference in the pandemic and allowed for a vaccine to emerge so quickly. Click here to read more and to listen to the episode.

Adam Kuspa of The Welch Foundation joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, materials science, and more. Photo courtesy of The Welch Foundation

Houston nonprofit leader on the importance of supporting research — from COVID-19 to materials science

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 62

The Welch Foundation, a Houston-based nonprofit that supports researchers across the state, has identified a need to dedicate resources toward a specific field of study that affects everyone on a daily basis — and has done so for years: materials science.

"There's a reason that paleontologists and historians named the ages of human society after materials — the Bronze Age, the Stone Age, the Iron Age," Adam Kuspa, president of the Welch Foundation, says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovator's podcast.

"You don't think about it, but it's because those materials transformed the way humans could interact with other humans and their environment," he continues. "Now, we're in this age of advanced materials. Every way a human interacts with their environment involves a material."

Despite this revolutionary moment the field is in, materials science still tends to be a relatively underfunded sector of research with a lot of potential, Kuspa says. That's among the reasons that the organization announced its plan to create the Welch Institute at Rice University focused on materials science. The announcement included a $100 million gift to the university, and the institute's physical location is currently under construction.

Aside from this recent announcement, it's been an interesting year for the Welch Foundation as — just like any other organization — the pandemic has caused various disruptions for Kuspa and his team. At the same time, COVID-19 has forced an unprecedented public-private response from the medical community, the government, and more.

"I'm very proud of the scientific enterprise in this country and around the world — they way it's been supported, developed, and maintained over the years — to allow for something like this be even contemplated," Kuspa says.

Over the last 40 to 50 years, researchers in the fields immunology, vaccine research, protein biochemistry, and more, have seen increased support, Kuspa says, and that's what made a difference in the pandemic and allowed for a vaccine to emerge so quickly.

"All of these things that have been going on in the background that the public has been blissfully unaware of — the thousands of researchers that have been doing this work over decades — has allowed for the concept of a COVID-19 vaccine to be brought forward in a short time," Kuspa says. "From identifying the source of a pandemic illness in December 2019 to be vaccinating against that illness within 12 months is astonishing."

Kuspa shares more about the new institute and his thoughts on how both COVID-19 and its vaccine will affect modern medicine in the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


This week's Houston innovators to know include Adam Kuspa of The Welch Foundation, Amanda Ducach of Social Mama, and Jay Rogers of IBC Bank. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

During this ongoing pandemic, Houston innovators are coming up with solutions and relief across every industry.

This week's three Houston innovators to know include a researcher who is helping fund scientists across the state, a Houston momtrepreneur looking out for the women wearing several hats at home, and a banker who wants to help you keep your financial information secure online.

Adam Kuspa, president of The Welch Foundation

The Welch Foundation, led by Adam Kuspa, funds basic research across the state of Texas — research that's important both in and out of pandemic. Photo courtesy of The Welch Foundation

Adam Kuspa observes the impressive work researchers across the state are doing across the chemical and biomedical disciplines as president of Houston-based Welch Foundation, but his job looks a little differently now. As COVID-19 has taken center stage in the world, people are desperate for a cure and vaccine.

However, as the race to find these solutions, Kuspa — along with other researchers and scientists — is watching carefully to see how the disease and its to-be solutions will affect research and medical innovations as a whole.

"What people forget in the rush to get a drug out is that you could also make matters worse," he says. "Drugs don't automatically cure or are neutral. They can also do harm. So, you want to be careful not to make the situation worse." Click here to read more.

Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of SocialMama

Amanda Ducach quickly upgraded her app, SocialMama, to help increase virtual access to health care professionals for moms stuck inside during the COVID-19 crisis. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

With much of society working from home, a huge burden has been placed on parents who are juggling their careers and homeschooling their children for the rest of the academic year. In many situations, the bulk of this responsibility has weighed heavy on moms, and a Houston momtrepreneur knew how to help them out.

Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of SocialMama, created her app to link up moms for friendship and mentorship, and she was planning on expanding the app to add in experts and professionals into the mix this summer. However, when COVID-19 hit, she realized this was something moms needed ASAP.

"We learned quickly that moms' behaviors were drastically changing throughout this process of the pandemic, but also that over a million babies were going to be born in isolation," Ducach says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That really changes the walk around maternal health." Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Jay Rogers, chairman and CEO of IBC Bank

You are more vulnerable to financial cyber threats in a crisis. Here are some tips for staying safe. Photo courtesy of IBC Bank

You know what you might not have thought of during these unprecedented times? Cybersecurity. Lucky for you, Jay Rogers of IBC Bank has. He shared his tips for keeping your financial information safe online in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"This is a time of great need," he writes. "Unfortunately, it is also a time of great opportunity for criminals. As Houstonians respond, as they always do, be sure to protect yourself while you are helping our community." Click here to read the article.

The Welch Foundation, led by Adam Kuspa, funds basic research across the state of Texas — research that's important both in and out of pandemic. Photo courtesy of The Welch Foundation

Houston-based nonprofit leader believes COVID-19 will have long-term effects on important research

Q&A

It's Adam Kuspa's job to provide support to Texas researchers as they attempt to create innovative chemical and biochemical solutions for the betterment of mankind.

Formerly the dean of research at Baylor College of Medicine, Kuspa now serves as president of Houston-based Welch Foundation, which has, over the past several decades, provided nearly $800 million in research funding across the state.

Kuspa, through the organization, regularly sees revolutionary chemical discoveries being innovated in Texas across the 60 institutions he works with. It's usually an exciting job.

"I've spent my career, at least the last 15 years or so, helping other people do their research — before as being in research at Baylor College of Medicine," Kuspa tells InnovationMap. "I really enjoy enabling very, very smart people to do creative, innovative science. It's a lot of fun."

However, as the race to find a cure and vaccine to COVID-19 heats up, Kuspa — along with other researchers and scientists — is watching carefully to see how the disease and its to-be solutions will affect research and medical innovations as a whole.

"What people forget in the rush to get a drug out is that you could also make matters worse," he says. "Drugs don't automatically cure or are neutral. They can also do harm. So, you want to be careful not to make the situation worse."

Kuspa sat down with InnovationMap to discuss The Welch Foundation's mission, as well as some of his observations on potential cures for COVID-19 and what concerns he has.

InnovationMap: Tell me about the Welch Foundation and what role it plays in Texas?

Adam Kuspa: For over 65 years, the Welch Foundation has pursued its mandate based on Robert Welch's thought from the 1950s that chemistry was very important to the improvement of mankind. And so, our mandate is to fund foundational research in chemistry in the state of Texas, working through academic institutions throughout the state. We've done that consistently for the past 65 years through several programs.

IM: What type of research does the foundation fund usually?

AK: The research grant program gives grants to individual investigators, and we're doing about 300 to 400 continuously throughout the state of Texas. There's also block grants to departments to encourage students to become involved in chemical research. And we have other programs such as our endowed chair programs. We've given out about 40 endowed professorships, which support specific professors at individual institutions and their chemical research.

I should point out that chemistry research from our perspective is broadly defined and includes biochemistry of material sciences, et cetera. Currently our grant portfolio consists of 50 percent biomedical research grants, which is relevant to current current situation with COVID-19.

IM: How do you connect to Texas research institutions usually?

AK: We have fairly typical calls for applications for research grants or departmental grants and for our two award programs: the Welch Award in Chemistry, which is given out every year in Houston, and the Norman Hackerman Award, for junior faculty researchers in state of Texas.

A lot of the work is going out in the community to visit with the researchers and our academic institution partners. That, of course, has been curtailed, but typically we would visit any one of the 60 or so institutions that we support on a cycle of several years. So, that involves going to the chemistry departments, speaking with faculty, hearing how the research is going, and getting feedback on how our programs can be improved.

We also have an annual research conference, which unfortunately has been canceled this year, but typically draws 200 to 800 participants from around the state with speakers coming in around the world. This year, it was meant to be on neuroscience. Last October, the conference concerned genome editing. So, it's quite exciting, and the conferences, which are always held in Houston, are generally very well attended. They are a good way to start to interact with the scientific community in general.

IM: What has been the organization’s focus during the pandemic?

AK: We are obligated to fund foundational research in chemistry and allied fields, like biochemistry. So, we're not at liberty to fund development of therapies, for instance. However, I would say an interesting way to look at this is that we hear a lot about a search for a therapeutic for COVID-19 and, obviously, a search for vaccine — these begin with research.

Since it normally takes 15 to 18 years to bring a drug to market from first principles of how you're going to interrupt the human biology to effecting a cure, you're hearing a lot about testing existing drugs or their potential therapeutic effect on COVID-19. The reason we're able to do that is because we have a lot of drugs that are in the process of being developed and drugs that are already approved for human use. It's a lot more efficient to try to look at the potential utility of those already human-approved drugs and their potential effect on viral replication.

So, we sort of view our role as the Welch Foundation as funding that foundational research — either in drug development from a chemical perspective or in funding foundational work in how viruses attack the human body in the first place. And, although we give out grants for basic research, our investigators are pretty industrious. When there's a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of them turned their attention towards the problem at hand.

Another way that we've supported the general availability of potential therapeutics is that we've made a large grant to The Center for Drug Discovery at the Baylor College of Medicine directed by Martin Matzuck. And the reason we were interested in helping to get that center started is because they had an idea to make a drug discovery and development much more efficient and cost effective. That promotes a general capability of Houston and Texas in terms of being able to bring about potential therapeutics to wide range of diseases, but potentially for COVID-19 specifically.

IM: What’s the usual process of getting a drug from research stage to use?

AK: There are four phases of testing. Phase one is for safety, phase two is for dosing and potential efficacy, and phase three is for broad range of efficacy — large numbers of patients and trials that take hundreds of millions of dollars to perform. Approval by FDA occurs after phase three, but then there's actually a phase four study, which is following the drug for potential adverse effects once it is in common use by the public.

You may remember there's a drug called Vioxx — it's a very good pain reliever. But, in the phase four study, after millions of prescriptions were written already, it was found to cause rare heart problems and heart attacks. People were dying spontaneously, and it was hard to pin that specifically on Vioxx, but you can do it statistically from the phase four trial after the drug was introduced.

So, the reason you hear about hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 is because you sort of get the short circuit and skip those phases and jump right to phase four studies where you know it's basically safe and you roughly know how to dose. But what you don't though is how that approved drug can be used for particular indications like COVID-19 and how safe it is.

You can't actually jump the normal 18-year process, and with existing drugs you're still only at year 15, where you're got another few years to figure out how to actually use them in the context of the COVID-19.

IM: Scientists and researchers are working on solutions, but what are the challenges they are facing?

AK: That's a great question. Given that we have so many research grants around the state, we get input literally on an hourly basis from our grantees on the status of their research because of the interruption. And the short story is that all research has been shut down in the state of Texas except for research directly related to coronavirus.

Large biomedical research centers, which have hundreds of millions of dollars a year in external research funding going to cure a broad range of disease have shut all of their labs down, except for the few labs that are working directly on COVID-19. That includes vaccine discovery and production.

A lot of work has been wasted because often biological experiments take weeks and months of progression, and if can't complete the final steps, you'll have to start over.

IM: Do you think this will have a long-term effect on research?

AK: I think so. Science, as it turns out, is a very creative, human-interactive activity. It's actually much more social than people realize. It's not the individual scientist working at the lab bench only. It's a lot of travel, seminars given by out-of-town speakers, scientific conferences, gatherings of hundreds of people.

The annual neuroscience conference attracts 40,000 people every year from all over the world — and that's not happening. As far as we can tell, all scientific conferences have been canceled for the rest of 2020. When I talked to my colleagues and professors around the country, every out of town seminar has been canceled. So, the exchange of information that's been so vital to stimulate creativity and collaboration between laboratories isn't happening, and there are new venues have to be found to do that online. But there is going to be a limitation. I think people are adapting, and we'll just have to see how it unfolds.

The published literature is one to one-and-a-half years behind what's actually happening in the laboratory. So, the way people learn about what's going on — the failed experiments, the things you're trying out, the exciting new ideas — is generally through face-to-face interactions. And that happens by scientists traveling between universities and at conferences in the hallways between the formal sessions. That aspect is absolutely vital to the progress of science.

IM: What is something you want people to know about the basic research that the Welch Foundation is funding?

We need consistency and support for basic research because, during a pandemic, we want to have a cure, but we don't think about the hundreds of thousands of scientists across the country who are struggling to get funding for the basic research when there's not a pandemic.

Additionally, this basic research is also the engine for industry — particularly the biotech industry in Houston, and folks have been really working hard to try to ensure that there's an ecosystem for new companies to be formed out of Houston. I think part of the reason why we might survive this current oil glut as opposed to the mid 1980s is that the Houston economy is diversified with — not just with the port and NASA — but with biomedical research and patient care. In Houston, health care is the largest employer — it's larger than oil and gas. That kind of diversification is good for the economy and good for the innovation environment that people in Houston have tried really to make happen for the last 10 years or so.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Overheard: Master P shares his entrepreneurial advice at Houston Tech Rodeo kickoff

eavesdropping in Houston

Percy Miller developed his music career as Master P, but it's far from his only entrepreneurial endeavor. At Houston Exponential's kick-off event for the 2021 Houston Tech Rodeo, Miller took the virtual stage with Zack O'Malley Greenburg, a journalist and author.

In the discussion, Miller shared his experience in his many fields of entrepreneurship, including music, fashion, consumer packaged goods, and more. He focused on trusting your own hard work, surrounding yourself with a good support system, and embracing failure — something he's done throughout his career.

"I don't look at it as a loss. I look at it as a lesson. Every 'L' is a lesson," he says. "Every time I had a business fail, I learned something from it and it opened up a door into a future."

To hit the highlights from the fireside chat with Master P, check out some overheard moments below. To stream the full broadcast, click here.

“A music career only lasts 3 to 5 years at the most. … I started diversifying my portfolio and I looked at the tech side and said, ’This is where you got to be at.’”

Miller says he was out in the Bay Area in the '90s and early '00s, and he saw first hand the tech scene developing in Silicon Valley. He even released an album in 2005 called Ghetto Bill, a reference to Bill Gates.

“I have failed a lot — don’t be afraid to fail. Get out and take that chance on yourself.”

Miller's music career mirrors, in some ways, the dynamic path of a startup. He received a $10,000 investment from his grandparents and used it to launch his career.

"I created an empire with $10,000," he says.

But It wasn't always easy, and Miller remembers the hustle, selling his music from the trunk of his car, and his many failures.

“You have to be committed to what you do — and you have to love it. It never was about money. When you’re passionate about something, you have a purpose. You’ll get there. If you do it for money, you’ll probably never be successful.”

Passion is a key ingredient in the recipe for success, Miller explains. It drives accomplishment and, "if you get it that easy, you'll probably lose it even quicker," he continues.

“I have an entrepreneurial spirit — I have to learn everything about what I’m doing.”

When it came to developing his music career, Miller says he wore every different hat in the process because he knew he would work the hardest.

"For me, if I can be the talent and the person who runs the company, I feel like there's no limit," Miller says. "I knew I could depend on myself."

“Show me your friends, and I can show you your future.”

Miller started his own record label, No Limit Records, and it was here he cultivated an environment of artists who didn't just want to perform, get pampered, and hang out at the club.

"People at No Limit — it was like a university," he says. "Everybody was coming to study to not only learn how to be an artist but also learn entrepreneurship and financial literacy."

“Most people wanted that advanced check, that money upfront. But my thing was I wanted the control in the end. When you come from a poor culture, you look at things differently. At least I did.”

Miller says he learned this at a young age, that if you hold the power, you make the decisions. "I want better for my kids and the only way I am going to do that is by creating longevity where I own the largest percent of the company," he says.

“It’s all about economic empowerment — we’re stronger together.”

Miller says he's focused on product and taking over the grocery stores, as well as driving economic empowerment for other BIPOC-founded companies and putting money back into the community.

"I want to focus on other minority-owned companies and brands get their products on the shelves,' he says.

Experts: Houston can win in the energy transition — here's how

Guest column

President Joe Biden recently announced his 2030 goal for the United States to achieve a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from its 2005 levels. This announcement comes on the heels of the American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion infrastructure and climate-response program which offers a host of energy- and climate change-related initiatives, including a plan to speed up the conversion of the country to carbon-free electricity generation by 2035.

To reach these goals, companies of all industries are looking to implement clean energy investments and practices and do so quickly. Perhaps more than any major city in America, Houston faces fundamental questions about its economy and its future in the global Energy Transition. Some 4,600 energy companies, including more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies, serve as the foundation of the city's economy.

While many of these are working in the renewables space, the vast majority are rooted in fossil fuels. Many in Houston have long been anticipating this move towards renewables, but the new executive position on emissions has brought renewed pressure on Houston to take action and put investments behind securing its position as the Energy Capital of the World.

Houston's energy transition status

There has been an uptick in Energy Transition activity in Houston over the past several years. Currently, Houston boasts at least 100 solar energy-related companies and 30 wind energy-related companies. Environmental Entrepreneurs ranked Houston seventh among the top 50 U.S. metro areas for clean energy employment in the fourth quarter of 2019, with 1.9 percent of all clean energy jobs in the U.S. In 2019, Houston had 56,155 clean energy jobs, up nearly 4 percent from 2018, according to E2. However, by comparison, there are roughly 250,000 fossil fuel jobs in the area. (S&P Global)


Many traditional oil and gas companies have embraced this change, pivoting to more sustainable and resilient energy solutions. Companies working in tangentially related industries, like finance, infrastructure and services, are beginning to understand their role in the Energy Transition as well.

The challenge

While the Bayou City's proximity to the bay and natural oil supply may have set the scene for Houston's Energy Capital Status, the same geographic advantages do not exist in this new renewable space. As many have already begun to realize – Houston companies must make a concerted and timely effort to expend their focus to include renewables.

Greater Houston Partnership recently launched a new initiative aimed at accelerating Houston's activity around energy transition, while existing committees will continue efforts to bring energy tech and renewable energy companies to Houston. This initiative will bolster Houston's smart city efforts, explore the policy dimensions of carbon capture, use, and storage, and advocate for legislation that helps ensure the Texas Gulf Coast is positioned as a leader in that technology.

The Partnership estimates the city has seen $3.7 billion dollars of cleantech venture funding in recent years. Still, the infrastructure and services sector of the Energy Transition is vastly underinvested in, especially when compared to the tens of billions in the more traditional sector.

The opportunity

Houston, and the energy markets specifically, have always been great at raising capital and deploying it. The energy companies and capital needed to support them will continue to be in Houston as the energy markets transition to renewable sources in addition to fossil fuels.

The job opportunities in Houston and new energy are going to be significant. Texas is well suited to fit these needs as the technical skillset from fossil fuels to renewables is highly transferable. Given the technical expertise needed to manage energy—whether it's oil, gas or renewables—Houston and Texas will always have the universities here that feed the technical skills needed in energy.

Houston has always done a great job at attracting energy companies and related businesses to move their headquarters here or open and office in the area. Additionally, offering proper training opportunities for both oil and gas and renewable energy jobs has a proven track record of spurring growth and attracting talent to our area.

All of this, combined with a concerted effort from investors willing to double down on the sectors of solar, storage, electric vehicles and energy management sectors are critical. With swifter growth for jobs in the renewable space and incentivization of the next generation of energy companies, Houston can forge a clear path towards the "New Energy Capital of the World."

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Eric Danziger and Jordan Frugé are managing directors at Houston-based Riverbend Energy Group.

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 — sports tech, energy, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Lawson Gow, founder of The Cannon

Lawson Gow is bullish on Houston becoming a sports tech hub. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Is Houston the next hub for sports tech innovation? Lawson Gow thinks so.

"Sports tech is a thing we can win at. There's no global hub for sports tech — so Houston can do that," Gow says. "We've always had that in our heads as a direction we want the city to head down, so it just makes it so opportunistic to create a space for that kind of innovation at work for the city."

The founder of Houston coworking company, The Cannon, announced last week plans for a sports tech hub in partnership with Braun Enterprises and Gow Media (InnovationMap's parent company). Click here to read more.

Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston

Kate Evinger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the latest from gBETA Houston. Photo courtesy of gBETA

Most accelerators are focused on growing startups in a specific way toward a specific goal. For gBETA Houston, that goal is toward a new round of funding or another accelerator, says Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"We look at early-stage companies, so those that are pre-seed or seed-stage that are looking for mentorship or support," Evinger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "and we help get to that next step whether that's to raise an upcoming round or if they are looking to get into an equity-based accelerator program."

Evinger shares more details on the ongoing cohort on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the show.

Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy US

A $2.23 million deal means a growing presence Texas for Octopus Energy. Photo via LinkedIn

A United Kingdom-founded energy company has expanded yet again in the Texas market. Octopus Energy announced the acquisition of Houston-based Brilliant Energy last week, and it's a huge opportunity for the company says Octopus Energy's United States CEO Michael Lee.

"This is a major moment for us, as we work to bring our 100% renewable energy supply and outstanding technology to more Texans and their homes," he says. Click here to read more.