James Driver Park is the city's first all-inclusive space. Photo courtesy of Harris County Precinct 2

In a city lush with greenspace, Houston is about to debut a first. James Driver Inclusive Park, when it opens on Saturday, December 11, will be the first community park created specifically for visitors of every experience, ability, and special need on the spectrum.

Attendees can join the ribbon cutting and grand opening ceremony that starts at noon at the park in Aldine (10918 Bentley St.); Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia will lead the ceremonies.

“James Driver Inclusive Park will be the flagship park for Precinct 2 and all of Harris County,” Garcia tells CultureMap. “I expect it to transform how we all think about community spaces and inclusivity. Approximately half a million residents of Harris County live with some sort of physical or cognitive disability, yet, somehow, this park is the first of its kind in Harris County. James Driver Park will be a game-changer for so many families who have children with mobility or sensory issues or even parents who are in wheelchairs.”

Key park amenities include:

  • An improved and widened walking trail that will accommodate two people in wheelchairs, side by side
  • A playground featuring specially designed, wheelchair-friendly equipment where kids can spin, sway, swing, slide and splash
  • An outdoor gaming and fitness area featuring bocce, shuffleboard, chess tables, corn hole, bean bag toss and fitness equipment
  • A misting area and plenty of shade, providing relief from the heat
  • A remodeled and expanded community center, open in back to reveal lush green space
  • A covered dining space and outdoor picnic areas
  • A sensory garden featuring indigenous perennials
  • An event lawn and pavilion for musical and other entertainment
  • An art wall for installations of art by local artists
  • A cistern that will capture rainwater for water play and irrigationA METRO bus stop and plenty of parking
  • A designated parking area for taco and other food trucks

Parents and families can look for these key features for those with special needs, per press materials:

Big bridge
The bridge’s design allows for self-regulated play experiences for children of all ages and abilities to exercise risk, failure, and mastery. An extra-wide ramp and bridge (8 feet) allows for people in wheelchairs and/or mobility devices to easily pass side by side barrier free.

Three play towers offer graduated challenges for climbing, sliding, and balancing, while the overall 80-foot long structure offers areas of respite for all ages and abilities to enjoy the park from above.

Shoulder wheel and serpentine path
These two peripheral elements are designed for older adults or persons with mobility challenges to exercise independently. The shoulder wheel is designed specifically to increase shoulder mobility; the serpentine path uses hand/eye coordination to strengthen small motor skills.

Sensory garden
Studies show the greener the play area, the better the concentration and mental function. The sensory garden utilizes a crazy maze, rolling bells, and serpentine path to foster motor skills and hand eye coordination.

A key element is the ability here to easily withdraw from the active play area but still feel incorporated in the activity as an onlooker for those who may get overwhelmed easily. The sensory garden also appeals to at least one of the five senses; sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch.

For those not local, Garcia notes that the greenspace is well worth the drive for its inclusivity, tangible benefits, and its ability to create a joyful, all encompassing experience. “This park allows families to all play together,” he adds.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

A program at UH has just gotten a rare and prestigious accreditation. Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

University of Houston logistics and transportation program receives global accreditation

leveled up

A program at the University of Houston has received a rare global accreditation that will allow for more opportunities for the students in both the graduate and undergraduate programs.

The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport has accredited UH's Supply Chain & Logistics Technology bachelor's and master's degree plans. Now, students can apply for membership upon graduation and use the CILT credential after their name, according to a press release from UH, and this is the first academic program in the United States to have this distinction.

"In launching our globally-recognized credential program, we are addressing gaps in skill sets and focusing on filling those gaps with our students, helping them become more marketable," says Margaret Kidd, program director of Supply Chain & Logistics Technology, in the release.

Port Houston has granted $50,000 to the program, and these funds are being used to take the curriculum digital and allow for an online platform for certificate courses.

"The College of Technology prides itself in providing degree programs that support the workforce – a workforce that both needs to expand in numbers to boost the economy, but also to provide a more relevant education for industry and commerce," says Anthony P. Ambler, dean of the UH College of Technology, in the release. "We are grateful to the Port Houston and its support of our technology program which explicitly exposes students to how business operates so that they are able to be productive quickly."

The news was announced at a press conference at UH. Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 2 Adrian Garcia and Port Houston Commissioner Wendy Montoya Cloonan joined UH representatives at the event.

"The pandemic has wrecked several sectors of the economy, directly impacting thousands, and so many are searching for new skills that translate to this new normal. This UH program, funded by Port grants, is yet another way we and our partners are addressing that," says Commissioner Garcia. "Hardworking people need locally elected officials, educational institutions, and industry to help us get past these difficult times, which is why I am extremely excited about the launch of this program."

The first group of participants for the program will come from dual-credit high schools with a logistics focus and community colleges offering logistics and international business degrees.

"Our program plays an integral part in preparing the next generation of workers. We thank Port Houston for funding our project which provides meaningful influence for area students," says Kidd.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

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.