Houston-based alive5 has over 800 customers using their chatbox services — and has found a special niche in sports team's websites. Photo via alive5.com

It seems like every other webpage nowadays has a virtual assistant that pops up via a chat box. A Houston startups is hoping to ride the wave of this digital marketing initiative.

Houston-based alive5 has created a platform that allows small-to-medium-sized businesses to engage customers using Chatbot Technology, from their websites, apps, SMS text-message, and social media pages.

"What we do at alive5 is really simple," says Glenn Gutierrez, COO and co-founder of alive5. "We help your business make more conversations."

Gutierrez and his co-founder Dustin Yu started out in 2017 as Alive Chat System and they were one of the first chat systems in Texas.

"Our chat system was kind of a common system that you might see on a website that says, 'Hey, how can I help you today?" says Gutierrez. "And when you press that button, somebody on the other end sends a message and says, 'Hey, how are you doing today? How can I help you?"

After exploring how to take the company, which was initially a lifestyle product, to scale, they added new products and found new ways for their clients to have more conversations with their customers.

"We had to create as many channels as possible outside of web chat," says Gutierrez. "We talked about the live chat system, moving into SMS text message, moving into social media and interestingly enough, we started moving into business cards with QR codes where people can actually scan a QR code or text a phone number and we can automatically build a relationship with a customer at an event, in person or from a billboard.

"And that activates pretty much all the rest of the system for businesses to be able to engage a customer. So we think about ourselves as the best way to help you create more conversations, not just on your website, but pretty much anywhere you would engage a customer."

The platform enjoyed a meteoric rise in the chat space due to its participation in Capital Factory's accelerator program. From there, they were placed in another accelerator program in Philadelphia, the Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, powered by Techstars.

"Because of the boost from the accelerator programs, we developed relationships with a lot of great organizations," says Gutierrez. "Today, we service over 800 customers, including 200 of the top college sports teams and pro teams like the NBA, NFL and NHL."

The platform's collaboration helps teams sell more tickets, especially premium seat tickets, by facilitating conversations with VIP clients and allowing fans the opportunity to go to the team's website to use the automated chat solution.

"A good example of one of those is the Jacksonville Jaguars website," says Gutierrez. "You can go there and see one of our chat boxes available to assist with inquiries or questions that you may have before, during or after a game. And our solution is built for organizations with a high volume of customer interactions to automate some of those tier one questions."

Alive5 also services customers like Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, major hotel brands and other companies in the hospitality space. They are also now collaborating with Spectra Venue Management, which manages hundreds of venues throughout North America, to pilot alive5's messaging and concierge services.

Outside of their inroads in the chat space, the platform is creating AI-powered strategies to help companies maximize their communication opportunities at personal touchpoint events such as conferences and trade shows.

"With our A.I. powered business cards, we're able to take an engagement that happens at a conference, an event or at a networking session and turn that into a prospect that's now part of a company's digital lead funnel," says Gutierrez. "What we're proposing is to give them a laser-etched metal business card with the QR code. That is better than just giving them a paper business card that they will take and may or may not call you and that's it, that's the end of the interaction.

"With the QR code, a potential contact can scan it and it will send them a demo of our product to their phone and it will give them all of a client's contact details so they can reach out to that client anytime they're ready to buy. The best part about that is that now you have something that no other system can do and you have that customer's phone number available to you at any point in time."

Moving forward, the Houston-based platform wants to do everything within its power to be one of the most successful chat companies nationwide.

"I like to think about our product like a Lego set," says Gutierrez. "It's up to you to choose what package you want. I've been in the startup space for a long time and to finally see that ecosystem starting to mature to the point that businesses are more open to digitally transforming their organizations, where they're understanding the need to take risks, to try new things, that's great for us.

"When you think about a company that can help you with your communication, I want alive5 to be the first company on their minds."

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

coming to Hou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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