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.

The Houston launch for the book is Wednesday, May 19 at The Motherhood Center from 4 pm to 6 pm. The official Austin launch happens on Thursday, May 20 at Central Machine Works from 4 pm to 6 pm. Both events are free, but audiences are asked to register. After the Fall is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, at Brazos Bookstore, and online.

In many ways, Gerhart's journey is like many other immigrant stories of coming to a new land and rebuilding a life. For Gerhart, though, it wasn't just about building a new life, it was learning that she had choices.

Before the fall
In her homeland, she'd been involved with a communist youth group, and had plans to rise through the communist party. When communism fell, her sense of how she saw herself was battered. All of a sudden, though, there were opportunities.

"Growing up, my friends and I all wore the same clothes," she says. "But it was because you would go into a store and there might be only three kinds of winter jacket."

With the fall of communism, Gerhart could travel far beyond her Czech roots, and discover all sorts of new things: new foods, new styles, new ideas.

"I was hungry for adventures and experiences," she remembers.

After the fall
She came to the U.S. in 1998, where she became an au pair. While she didn't have a choice of where she was sent, she says that she loved that she landed in Houston. The Bayou City would open her eyes to all the possibilities of what she could do and what she could be.

Gerhart describes herself as someone who is always challenging herself, so being an entrepreneur was a natural fit. She's also always been nurturing, which is what led her to study nursing and become a pediatric nurse. Combining her love of mothers and babies with her grit and determination, she built The Motherhood Center in 2000 to provide expectant and early post-natal moms with a supportive network and educational resources to raise healthy children, while not neglecting themselves.

All of it is outlined in After the Fall, in triumph and tragedy. Gerhart outlines her inability to have children, even as she was building her business into the premier destination for moms and babies. A stepmother and grandmother now, she says she has found great happiness in her life, chasing her dreams and adventures across continents and political changes.

An American dream
"My favorite thing about America is that there are so many opportunities," she says. "I am so grateful. It's really amazing how young America is. People don't realize, the basement in my house in the Czech Republic is 300 years older than this country," she jokes.

Writing her autobiography gave her the chance to reflect on that, as well as unpack her own feelings about communism and its fall. Growing up, she says, her parents never discussed their feelings about the subject; it was far too dangerous.

"A parent might say something to their child and the child could go to school and repeat it and all of a sudden, there would be a knock on the door from the police," she says. "Writing this book meant my parents and I could speak more openly about it, and I was able to see things from their perspective."

She hopes the book will inspire others to embrace their potential and pursue their own dreams. Maybe they'll be encouraged to start their own business. Maybe they'll re-discover gratitude for being Americans. Maybe they'll set off on their own adventures.

As for Gerhart, now that the book is finished, she's looking ahead to what's next. She'll keep expanding The Motherhood Center and its programming, and she's taking on speaking engagements in the coming months.

"I have a need to share," she explains. "And I'll keep doing that.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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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.