3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Angela Holmes of Mercury Data Science, Ashok Gowda of BioTex, and Rachel Moncton of ClassPass. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — data science, consumer tech, and medical device innovation — recently making headlines.

Angela Holmes, chief operating officer of Mercury Data Science

Mercury Data Science has taken a tool it originally developed for COVID-19 research and applied it into new areas of research and innovation. Photo courtesy of MDS

When the pandemic hit, the team at Mercury Data Science knew data was going to have a huge role to play. Last fall, MDS released an AI-driven app designed to help researchers unlock COVID-19-related information tucked into biomedical literature. The app simplified access to data about subjects like genes, proteins, drugs, and diseases.

Now, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, the company is applying this technology to areas like agricultural biotech, in which the platform enables researchers to sift through literature to dig up data about plant genetics, says Angela Holmes, chief operating officer at MDS. The lack of gene-naming standards in the world of plants complicates efforts to search data about plant genetics, she says.

The platform's ability to easily ferret out information about plant genetics "allows companies seeking gene-editing targets to make crops more nutritious and more sustainable as the climate changes to have a rapid way to de-risk their genomic analyses by quickly assessing what is already known versus what is unknown," Holmes says. Click here to read more.

Ashok Gowda, founder and CEO of BioTex

Houston-based BioTex works with medical device and health tech companies from all stages, from R&D to commercialization. Photo via biotexmedical.com

In the process of building a medical device company called Visualase and exiting it to Medtronic for over $100 million, Ashok Gowda learned a lot. And, over the past two decades, he's been sharing that knowledge and expertise of his and his team to medtech companies of all stages at Houston-based BioTex.

"Ultimately we built a nice infrastructure by supporting (the Visualase) spin out," Gowda tells InnovationMap. "And we learned a lot about not just product development, but about commercializing and creating a new market that may not exist. And we had some really good, experienced commercial folks we had hired on the Visualase side. I just think it's a good learning lesson that you can't really teach this stuff — you gotta experience it really to understand." Click here to read more.

Rachel Moncton, vice president of Global Marketing at ClassPass

Rachel Moncton shares why ClassPass tapped Houston as a prime place to expand. Photo courtesy of ClassPass

Rachel Moncton has lived all over the world in her career at fitness and wellness-focused consumer tech company, ClassPass — and her latest assignment has been standing up the company's fourth domestic office right here in Houston, Texas.

On last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Moncton shares how Houston as a hub offers the growing company a chance to be a big fish in a small consumer tech pond.

"I get a lot of people saying, 'Houston? That's an interesting choice and not what we'd expect,'" Moncton says. "But that's one of the things we like about it. There's a good startup scene here but not a million different consumer tech companies, so it's nice that we are able to make a bit of a splash." Click here to read more.

Mercury Data Science has taken a tool it originally developed for COVID-19 research and applied it into new areas of research and innovation. Photo via Getty Images

Houston data science company expands pandemic-inspired research tool

by the numbers

Last fall, Houston-based Mercury Data Science released an AI-driven app designed to help researchers unlock COVID-19-related information tucked into biomedical literature. The app simplified access to data about subjects like genes, proteins, drugs, and diseases.

Now, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Mercury Data Science is applying this technology to areas like agricultural biotech, cancer therapeutics, and neuroscience. It's an innovation that arose from the pandemic but that promises broader, long-lasting benefits.

Angela Holmes, chief operating officer of Mercury Data Science, says the platform relies on an AI concept known as natural language processing (NLP) to mine scientific literature and deliver real-time results to researchers.

"We developed this NLP platform as a publicly available app to enable scientists to efficiently discover biological relationships contained in COVID research publications," Holmes says.

The platform:

  • Contains dictionaries with synonyms to identify things like genes and proteins that may go by various names in scientific literature.
  • Produces data visualizations of relationships among various biological functions.
  • Summarizes the most important data points on a given topic from an array of publications.
  • Depends on data architecture to automate how data is retrieved and processed.

In agricultural biotech, the platform enables researchers to sift through literature to dig up data about plant genetics, Holmes says. The lack of gene-naming standards in the world of plants complicates efforts to search data about plant genetics, she says.


Angela Holmes is the COO of MDS. Photo via mercuryds.com


The platform's ability to easily ferret out information about plant genetics "allows companies seeking gene-editing targets to make crops more nutritious and more sustainable as the climate changes to have a rapid way to de-risk their genomic analyses by quickly assessing what is already known versus what is unknown," Holmes says.

The platform allowed one of Mercury Data Science's agricultural biotech customers to comb through scientific literature about plant genetics to support targeted gene editing in a bid to improve crop yields.

In the field of cancer therapeutics and other areas of pharmaceuticals, the platform helps prioritize drug candidates, Holmes says. One of Mercury Data Science's customers used the platform to extract data from about 2 terabytes (or 2 trillion bytes) of information to evaluate drug candidates. The information included drug studies, clinical trials, and patents. Armed with that data, Mercury Data Science's cancer therapy client signed agreements with new pharmaceutical partners.

The platform also applies to the hunt for biomarkers in neuroscience, including disorders such as depression, anxiety, autism and multiple sclerosis. Data delivered through the platform helps bring new neurobehavioral therapeutics to market, Holmes says.

"An NLP platform to automatically process newly published literature for more insight on the search for digital biomarkers represents a great opportunity to accelerate research in this area," she says.

Mercury Data Science has experience in the field of digital biomarkers, including work for one customer to develop a voice and video platform to improve insights into patients with depression and anxiety in order to improve treatment of those conditions.

The new platform — initially developed as a tool to combat COVID-19 — falls under the startup's vast umbrella of artificial intelligence and data science. Founded in 2017, Mercury Data Science emerged because portfolio companies of the Houston-based Mercury Fund were seeking to get a better handle on AI and data science.

Last April, Angela Wilkins, founder, co-CEO and chief technology officer of Mercury Data Science, left the company to lead Rice University's Ken Kennedy Institute. Dan Watkins, co-founder and managing director of the Mercury Fund, remains at Mercury Data Science as CEO.

The Ken Kennedy Institute fosters collaborations in computing and data. Wilkins replaced Jan Odegard as executive director of the institute. Odegard now is senior director of industry and academic partnerships at The Ion, the Rice-led innovation hub.

Wilkins "is an academic at heart with considerable experience working with faculty and students, and an entrepreneur who has helped build a successful technology company," Lydia Kavraki, director of the Ken Kennedy Institute, said in a news release announcing Wilkins' new role. "Over her career, Angela has worked on data and computing problems in a number of disciplines, including engineering, life sciences, health care, agriculture, policy, technology, and energy."

At TMCx's Demo Day, the cohort's companies boasted of local deals and accomplishments. Courtesy of TMC

TMCx companies plant Houston roots with pilots, partnerships, and more

Lasting impact

At the conclusion of TMCx's recent Digital Health cohort — the most international group to date — there was only one Houston company among the 19. However, most of that group have developed a presence in Houston throughout the program.

Besides just being based here in Houston for four months, TMCx associate director, Lance Black, says the city has a lot to offer these startups.

"Why Houston? Why are these companies coming from everywhere to be here? Three big reasons," he says to the crowd at Demo Day. "The size and scale of the Texas Medical Center, the diversity of Houston, and the willingness and hunger of Houstonians wanting to be involved in innovation."

From pilots and partnerships to funding and mentorship, these TMCx08 companies announced the impact they've made on Houston at the Demo Day on Thursday, June 6. Meanwhile, TMCx had its own announcement that it would create early stage programming for professionals connected to the Texas Medical Center.

"It is the TMC's mission to advance health care, research, and education. It's our mission at the Innovation Institute to bring value back to the med center through health care technology," Black says. "And, through TMCx, we do that through startup companies."

Here are some examples of TMCx companies setting foundations in the Houston ecosystem.

Virti

Photo via virti.com

California-based Virti has developed an extended reality simulation technology for training medical staff. It's a cheaper, more effective way to train personnel, says Alex Young, CEO of the company.

Virti was selected to be in England's National Health Service accelerator — the only evidence-based AR/VR training company ever to be picked for the program, says Young.

With a presence in California and England, Young says he's also planted roots in Texas too, with sales representation based in the TMCx offices.

"In the time that we've been here, we've closed deals in Texas and back in California," Young adds.

Optellum

Photo via optellum.com

Optellum is changing the way lung cancer is being detected. With the startup's artificial intelligence-enabled detection software, oncologists can better identify at-risk patients, which translates into more treatment for those in need, and less for those who don't.

The company, which is based in the United Kingdom, has raised funds abroad while networking locally.

"TMCx has been amazing for a small British company like us. We have started pilots and trials at four TMC member institutions," says Vaclav Potesil, CEO.

Oncora Medical

Photo via oncoramedical.com

Angela Holmes, the director of product and customer solutions of Oncora Medical, sets the stage at her company's Demo Day pitch by telling a story of her friend's daughter who was diagnosed with cancer. She was forced to pick between two treatment options. She had no data or insights to help.

Oncora Medical's mission is to help fight cancer using data. Though based in Philadelphia, Oncora has Houston ties, since it formed a partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center in April of 2017.

"We are so honored and gratified to be in a strategic, multi-year collaboration with MD Anderson to build this software system to save the world," Holmes says.

PreOp MD

Cody Duty/TMC

Within health care, the projected annual aggregate surgical expenditure by 2025 is expected to be $912 billion, says Christiana Obi, founder and CEO of PreOp MD, and a Houston-based anesthesiologist. She sees lack of information causing wasted surgical resources regularly.

PreOp MD — the only Houston-based TMCx company this cohort — has an app that allows for pre-procedure education, communication, and more that aims to prevent surgical delays.

While based here, PreOp is truly rooted in Houston, and even more so with their latest news.

"We are happy and excited to say that we have landed our first medical pilot at an medical right here in town," Obi says.

RoundTrip

Cody Duty/TMC

RoundTrip has a solution to 3.6 million missed or postponed medical visits that happen annually that are inconvenient to hospitals and a major health risk to the population: Ride sharing.

The Philadelphia-based company enables all forms of transportation and puts the power in the hands of the medical institution. From ambulances to other medical vehicles, the company can optimize utilization of all vehicles to get patients to their appointments and even has a partnership with Lyft.

While completing the TMCx program, RoundTrip closed its Series A round of $5.14 million led by Virginia-based Motley Fool Ventures in April. The funds will be used for expansion.

"Now we have all this new money to expand really rapidly. Texas, we're coming for you, whether you're ready or not," says Jackson Steeger, account supervisor.

Meru Health

Photos via meruhealth.com

Meru Health is also one of the 2019 TMCx Digital Health companies that has raised money while in the program. Palo Alto, California-based Meru completed a $4.2M raise in April 2019. The round was led by San Francisco-based Freestyle Capital.

Access to mental health professionals is increasingly more difficult, so Meru Health has created a low-cost digital clinic that offers an app-based treatment program from licensed therapists. Kristian Ranta, CEO and founder, while not yet providing specifics, that they aren't done in Texas.

"I'm happy to say there's some good stuff brewing here in Texas for us. More to follow," says Ranta.

Cloud 9

Photo via cloud9psych.com

Mental health is a key contributing factor in the legal system cycle, but it doesn't have to be Liz Truong, co-founder of Cloud 9. Better educating officers and providing them with mental health resources is the best way to get them out of the hospitals and court rooms and back out in the field to protect the city.

While some police departments have instituted ride-along programs with mental health professionals that have showed success, it's expensive for the police department and risky for those professionals. Cloud 9 has created a digital solution.

"We proved this works in the Harris County Sheriff's office right here in Houston," says Truong. "Officers reported that 97 percent of Cloud 9 care was superior or equal to their current program and showed an immediate 632 percent return on investment for our customers in the same budget cycle compared to what they were already spending."

Truong also says they have other local customers they are working with, including the Harris County Health Department.

Axem Neurotechnology

Photos via axemneuro.com

Recovering stroke patients need rehabilitation to get back to 100 percent, but getting patients into the facility is challenging and at-home compliance is hard to track.

Canadian company Axem Neurotechnology has a solution. With their external device and mobile application, physical therapists can track progress and communicate with patients remotely.

"When we talk to rehab professionals, they are excited about what we're doing," says Tony Ingram, CEO and co-founder. "That's why we have leading institutions in both Canada and the U.S. onboard for clinical trials — this includes TMC's own TIRR, which is consistently ranked in the top five rehab centers in the U.S. We're collecting core baseline data in the most diverse city in the country."


Correction: A previous version of this article said Oncora's partnership with MD Anderson was formed during the TMCx program, when the partnership began in 2017.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startup secures big contract, coworking company acquired, and more local innovation news

short stories

Houston is starting 2022 strong in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, the Bayou City is ranked based on its opportunities for STEM jobs, a Houston blockchain startup scores a major contract, Rice University opens applications for its veteran-owned busineess competition, and more.

Data Gumbo announces contract with Equinor

After a successful pilot, Equinor has signed off on a contract with Data Gumbo.. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston-based Data Gumbo, an industrial blockchain-software-as-a-service company, announced that it has signed a contract with Equinor. The global energy company's venture arm, Equinor Ventures, supported the startup's $7.7 million series B round, which closed last year.

The company's technology features smart contract automation and execution, which reduces contract leakage, frees up working capital, enables real-time cash and financial management, and delivers provenance with unprecedented speed, accuracy, visibility and transparency, per the release.

“Equinor is an industry trailblazer, demonstrating the true value of our international smart contract network to improve and automate manual processes, and bring trust to all parties,” says Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. “Smart contracts are playing a critical role in driving the energy industry forward. Our work with Equinor clearly demonstrates the benefits that supermajors and their supply chain customers, partners and vendors experience by automating commercial transactions. We are proud to continue our work with Equinor to help them realize the savings, efficiencies and new levels of transparency available through our smart contract network.”

Equinor opted into a pilot with the company a few years ago.

“Since piloting Data Gumbo’s smart contracts for offshore drilling services in 2019, we have worked with the company to continually refine and improve use cases. We now have the potential to expand Data Gumbo’s smart contract network to enable transactional certainty across our portfolio from the Norwegian Continental Shelf to our Brazilian operated assets and beyond,” says Erik Kirkemo, senior vice president at Equinor. “GumboNet reduces inefficiencies and processing time around contract execution in complex supply chains, which is a problem in the broader industry, and we look forward to realizing the streamlined process and cost savings of its rapidly expanding smart contract network.”

WeWork acquires Dallas coworking brand with 6 Houston locations

Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston including in The Ion, has been acquired. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

Dallas-based Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston, announced its acquisition by WeWork. The company's office spaces will be branded as “Common Desk, a WeWork Company,” according to a news release.

“Similar to WeWork, Common Desk is a company built on the concept of bringing people together to have their best day at work," says Nick Clark, CEO at Common Desk, in the release. "With the added support from WeWork, Common Desk will be able to not only leverage WeWork’s decade of experience in member services to improve the experience of our own members but also leverage WeWork’s impressive client roster to further build out our member base.”

Here are the six Common Desk spaces in Houston:

Here's how Houston ranks as a metro for STEM jobs

Source: WalletHub

When it comes to the best cities for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, Houston ranks in the middle of the pack. The greater Houston area ranked at No. 37 among the 100 largest metros across 19 key metrics on the list compiled by personal finance website, WalletHub. Here's how Houston fared on the report's metrics:

  • No. 36 – percent of Workforce in STEM
  • No. 74 – STEM Employment Growth
  • No. 43 – Math Performance
  • No. 16 – Quality of Engineering Universities
  • No. 2 – Annual Median Wage for STEM Workers (Adjusted for Cost of Living)
  • No. 90 – Median Wage Growth for STEM Workers
  • No. 75 – Job Openings for STEM Graduates per Capita
  • No. 88 – Unemployment Rate for Adults with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree

Elsewhere in Texas, Austin ranked at No. 2 overall, and Dallas just outranked Houston coming in at No. 34. San Antonio, El Paso, and McAllen ranked No. 51, No. 65, and No. 88, respectively.

Rice University calls for contestants for its 8th annual startup pitch competition for veterans

Calling all veteran and active duty startup founders and business owners. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University is now accepting applications from Houston veterans for its annual business competition. To apply for the 2022 Veterans Business Battle, honorably discharged veterans or active duty founders can head online to learn more and submit their business plan by Feb. 15.

“We’re looking forward to giving veterans the opportunity not just to share their ideas and get financing, but learn from other past winners the lessons about entrepreneurship they’ve lived through while growing their businesses,” event co-chair Reid Schrodel says in a news release.

Over the past few years, finalists have received more than $4 million of investments through the program. This year's monetary prizes add up to $30,000 — $15,000 prize for first place, $10,000 for second place, and $5,000 for third place.

Finalists will be invited to make their business pitch April 22 and 23 at Rice University. Click here to register for the event.

City of Houston receives grant to stimulate STEM opportunities

Houston's youth population is getting a leg up on STEM opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

Thanks to a $150,000 grant from the National League of Cities, the city of Houston has been awarded a chance to provide quality education and career opportunities to at-risk young adults and students. The city is one of five cities also selected to receive specialized assistance from NLC’s staff and other national experts.

“This award is a big win for young people. They will benefit from significant career development opportunities made possible by this grant,” says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. “These are children who would otherwise go without, now having experiences and connections they never thought possible. I commend the National League of Cities for their continued commitment to the future leaders of this country.”

According to the release, the grant money will support the Hire Houston Youth program by connecting diverse opportunity youth to the unique STEM and technology-focused workforce development.

"Our youth deserve educational opportunities that connect them to the local workforce and career exploration, so they can make informed choices about their future career path in Houston’s dynamic economy. Houston youth will only further the amazing things they will accomplish, thanks to this grant," says Olivera Jankovska, director of the Mayor's Office of Education.

Houston software startup raises $12.5M series B

money moves

Houston-based Codenotary, whose technology helps secure software supply chains, has raised $12.5 million in a series B round. Investors in the round include Swiss venture capital firm Bluwat and French venture capital firm Elaia.

The $12.5 million round follows a series A round that was announced in 2020, with total funding now at $18 million.

Codenotary, formely known as vChain, says the fresh round of money will be used to accelerate product development, and expand marketing and sales worldwide. Today, the startup has 100-plus customers, including some of the world’s largest banks.

Codenotary’s co-founders are CEO Moshe Bar and CTO Dennis Zimmer. They started the company in 2018.

Bar co-founded Qumranet, which developed the Linux KVM hypervisor. A hypervisor creates and runs virtual machines. Software provider Red Hat purchased Qumranet in 2008 for $127 million. Before that, he founded hypervisor company XenSource, which cloud computing company Citrix Systems bought in 2007 for $500 million.

“Codenotary offers a solution which allows organizations to quickly identify and track all components in their DevOps cycle and therefore restore trust and integrity in all their myriad applications,” Pascal Blum, senior partner at Bluwat, says in a news release.

The SolarWinds software supply chain hack in 2020 and the more recent emergence of Log4j vulnerabilities have brought the dangers of software lifecycle attacks to the forefront, Bar says. Now, he says, more and more companies are looking for ways to prove the legitimacy of the software that they produce.

Codenotary is the primary contributor to immudb, the an open-source, enterprise-class database with data immutability, or stability, designed to meet the demands of highly used applications.

Dallas-based ridesharing app gears up for expansion across Houston and beyond

HOUSTON INNOVATOR PODCAST EPISODE 118

Before he started his current job, Winston Wright would have thought a startup attempting to compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft was going to fight an uphill battle. Now, he sees how much opportunity there is in the rideshare market.

Wright is the Houston general manager for Alto, a Dallas-based company that's grown its driving service platform into five markets — first from Dallas into Houston and then to Los Angeles, Miami, and, most recently, Washington D.C. Alto's whole goal is to provide reliability and improve user experience.

"We're elevating ridesharing," Wright says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "With Alto, you get a consistent, safe experience with. a high level of hospitality. And that's a key differentiator for us in the market, and we're able to replicate that time and time again."

Wright, whose background is in sales and operations in hospitality, says his vision for alto in Houston is to expand the service — which operates in the central and western parts of the city — throughout the greater Houston area.

"The vision I have for this market is that, as we move forward and continue to expand, that we're covering all of Houston," he says.

This will mean expanding the company's physical presence too. Alto recently announced its larger space in Dallas, and now the Houston operations facility will grow its footprint too.

Wright says he's also focused on growing his team. Over the past two years, pandemic notwithstanding, the company has maintained hiring growth. Alto's drivers are hired as actual employees, not contractors, so they have access to benefits and paid time off.

The company, which raised $45 million in its last round of investment, is expanding next to the Silicon Valley area, followed by three to five more markets in 2022. Then, by the end of 2023, it's Alto's mission to have a completely electronic fleet of vehicles.

"Our goal is to have over 3,000 EV cars and be the first company with a 100 percent electric fleet by 2023," Wright says.

Wright shares more on Alto's future in Texas and beyond, as well as what's challenging him most as he grows the team locally. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.