This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Anouk van Pol of INGU Solutions, Eric Tait of Urban Capital Network, and Chris Howard of Softeq. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from venture capital to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Anouk van Pol, co-founder and COO of INGU Solutions

INGU Solutions has established its U.S. office in Houston — and is ready to tap into the city's energy industry with its revolutionary pipeline inspection-as-a-service model. Photo via LinkedIn

After generating some fresh funds from U.S. investors in 2019, Canadian pipeline services company INGU Solutions decided it was time to open a new office somewhere in the country. The startup led by a father-daughter team chose Houston and opened up an office just ahead of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The idea was to be closer to our customers,” Anouk van Pol, COO, tells InnovationMap. “Houston is the oil and gas hub, and just being able to be in [our clients'] offices and be there in person it just helps. I hope at one point COVID passes and that we can make use out of it a bit more.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, INGU, which uses data analytics and a small sensor to inspect pipes within the energy and water industries, grew 60 percent over the past two years. Click here to read more.

Eric Tait, co-founder at Urban Capital Network

Urban Capital Network have launched a fund-of-funds to allow investors to tap into later-stage startups at a much lower barrier of entry. Photo via urbancapitalnetwork.com

With its new fund of funds, Houston-based Urban Capital Network is allowing its members the chance to invest in venture funds at a much lower barrier of entry. The Horizon Fund II will deploy capital in up to five funds — each with 15 to 30 portfolio companies.

Eric Tait, co-founder at UCN, says they are looking for variety in the funds they invest in and are targeting top-tier, and highly rated VC firms all over the country that UCN's leadership has connections with.

“We’re relatively agnostic in terms of industry,” Tait says. “We do try to have a portfolio allocation that will create a return threshold that is varied.” Click here to read more.

Chris Howard, CEO and founder of Softeq

A Houston software company has announced its new venture fund. Photo courtesy of Softeq

Last week, Houston-based Softeq Development Corporation, a global full-stack development company, launched The Softeq Venture Fund, a $40 million venture fund to invest in seed and series A startup rounds. According to a news release, more than half the fund will be deployed to power the Softeq Venture Studio, Softeq's recently launched accelerator program.

“For generations, the state of Texas has been home to world-renowned tech companies who have greatly contributed to our regional success. As a local entrepreneur, advisor, and angel investor, it’s been my dream for many years to create a venture fund benefiting startups," says Christopher A. Howard, founder and CEO of Softeq, in the release. "I am proud to increase our support of the state’s early-stage tech community. Our investment fund is designed to attract tech visionaries from both inside and outside the state and grow innovative concepts in Houston." Click here to read more.

INGU Solutions has established its U.S. office in Houston — and is ready to tap into the city's energy industry with its revolutionary pipeline inspection-as-a-service model. Photo via ingu.com

Innovative Canadian company taps into Houston market to better serve energy customers

in the pipeline

On average, oil and gas pipelines are inspected every five years, which, considering pipelines in the United States are more than 60 years old, just isn't cutting it. Operators face costly and damaging leaks on cracks and incidences that are totally avoidable with more regular inspection. The issue is inspection isn't an easy process — unless INGU Solutions is involved.

The Alberta, Canada-based company has created a hardware component — called a Piper — that's about the size of a baseball. The device can be run through pipes of any size to inspect and detect internal issues. INGU has an inspection-as-a-service model so that whatever data is collected by the Pipers is analyzed and provided to clients without any more steps from them.

The idea for the device came to John van Pol, founder and CEO, who has a background in nuclear physics and founded the company in 2015. Now, he runs the company with his daughter, Anouk van Pol, who started as an analyst and working in the field for INGU and now serves the company as co-founder and COO.

The Piper is smaller than a baseball and can flow through any sized pipe used in the oil and gas industry. Photo via ingu.com

In 2017, INGU was selected to be a part of Chevron's inaugural Catalyst Program cohort and Chevron Technology Ventures — along with two other U.S. investors — contributed to the company's series A round in 2019. This led to INGU establishing its U.S. operations in Houston in order to grow their American team and to be closer to customers. Then, the pandemic hit.

“The idea was to be closer to our customers,” Anouk tells InnovationMap. “Houston is the oil and gas hub, and just being able to be in [our clients'] offices and be there in person it just helps. I hope at one point COVID passes and that we can make use out of it a bit more.

"The other thing is you open up your market on the hiring side," she says, adding that the company has two U.S. employees now.

INGU first had an office in The Cannon, but now operates locally at The Ion in the Common Desk coworking space with an office suite to support its local team. In 2019, the company was named to Plug and Play's inaugural Houston cohort and as a most-promising business by Rice Alliance at OTC.

Anouk, who was selected for Forbes 30 Under 30 in energy in 2020, and her father both split their time between Houston and Alberta, usually alternating so that the van Pols have a presence in each office at all times, but both are currently in town for the 34th annual Pipeline Pigging and Integrity Management conference, or PPIM. It's the OTC for the pipeline industry, Anouk says.

Ahead of the conference and despite the challenges the pandemic has posed for INGU, Anouk says the company has seen significant growth over the past two years.

"We grew 60 percent last year," she says. "which is pretty good for what's been happening over the past two years."

From a hardware perspective, the pandemic's impact has been relatively small. The Pipers are designed with off-the-shelf materials, which INGU stocked up on — avoiding any supply chain shortages. Additionally, INGU can send the devices to pipeline operators, who can deploy them while the devices send the collected data directly to INGU.

Anouk van Pol is the company's COO. Photo via LinkedIn

The company, which anticipates a secondary series A round this year in addition to tripling its annual revenue, has an environmental, social, and governance, or ESG, component to its business. While half of INGU's clients are in the energy industry and Pipers contribute to reducing waste within oilfield operations, the other half of customers are within the water industry. Water infrastructure is 100 years old, and Anouk says about 6 billion gallons of water are wasted each day.

"That's 40 percent of all water, and because so much water is lost, you need more power and energy," Anouk says. "Where we see oil and gas is aimed at prevention in well condition, etc., the water market is doing a lot of leak protection."

In both industries, Pipers are preventing waste and allowing companies to make positive moves in their ESG plans.

INGU has clients all over the world and servicing these various types of pipes and businesses is growing INGU's database, which better benefits their inspection-as-a-service capabilities.

"The more we grow, the more we can and will learn, and then go in this self-fulfilling cycle," Anouk says.

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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.