PHIOGEN, based at Texas Medical Center Innovation, is headed to Austin next month. Photo courtesy of TMC

Houston biotech startup PHIOGEN is among 45 finalists that will present at this year’s SXSW Pitch showcase in Austin.

PHIOGEN is one of five food, nutrition, and health startups that will participate in the pitch competition, set for March 9 and 10. A panel of judges will listen to the pitches and then pick the winners. Since 2009, SXSW Pitch finalists have raised more than $23.2 billion in funding.

PHIOGEN has developed the world’s first biogenetics technology platform to harness the power of bacteriophages in the fight against serious drug-resistant infections. Bacteriophages — viruses that are found in bacterial cells — “are ubiquitous in the environment and are recognized as the most abundant biological agent on earth,” according to an article published in 2022 by StatPearls.

Founded in 2023, PHIOGEN is a spinoff of the Baylor College of Medicine’s TAILOR Labs. The startup, based at the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Hub, has attracted more than $5 million in funding.

“Nothing about our treatments is fabricated; it boils down to creating natural environments that mimic real-life infections, driving biological changes to create ‘super phages’ against the superbugs,” Amanda Burkardt, CEO of PHIOGEN, said in 2023. “As a result, we receive high-performing phage fighters that are trained and ready to deliver safe and effective treatments for clinical applications.”

Professional services firm KPMG is the main sponsor of SXSW Pitch.

Six of this year’s SXSW Pitch judges are from Houston:

  • Heath Butler of Mercury Fund
  • Jesse Martinez of LSA Global
  • Trevor Purvis of the Houston Astros
  • Anu Puvvada of KPMG
  • Irene Tang of StartOut
  • Nate Thompson of HTX Sports Tech

“2024 is an exciting year for startups, and we are looking forward to showcasing these inspiring companies that are making waves in their respective industries and the world as a whole, as well as help connect them with the resources needed to continue advancing,” says Chris Valentine, producer of SXSW Pitch.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Youngro Lee of Brassica, Anu Puvvada of KPMG Studio, and Brock Murphy of Parent ProTech. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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


Youngro Lee, founder of Brassica

Youngro Lee joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his latest endeavor on his mission to democratize investing. Photo courtesy

Brassica Technologies, a fintech infrastructure company that's providing a platform for alternative assets, is just the next step in his career in using tech to democratize finance. The idea came from Lee's experience as a startup founder and fintech exec — first at NextSeed and then at Republic, which acquired NextSeed two years ago.

"The reason why I thought this was what I wanted to focus on next was exactly because it was an issue I struggled with as a founder of NextSeed," Lee says on the show. "The backend was always an issue. There's not one single vendor that we felt really understood our business, was doing it efficiently, or enabled us to deliver those services to our end clients."

Lee shares more about the future of Brassica, including the challenges he's facing within regulation and the state of fintech as a whole, on the podcast. He also weighs in on how he's seen the Houston innovation ecosystem grow and develop alongside his own entrepreneurial journey. Read more.

Anu Puvvada, KPMG Studio leader

Anu Puvvada, KPMG Studio leader, shares how her team is advancing software solutions while navigating hype cycles and solving billion-dollar-problems. Photo courtesy of KPMG

In 2021, KPMG, a New York-based global audit, accounting, and advisory service provider, formed a new entity to play in the innovation space. The Houston-based team finds innovative software that benefit KPMG's clients across industries.

In an interview with InnovationMap, Anu Puvvada, leader of KPMG Studio, shares more about the program, its first spin out, and why she's passionate about leading this initiative from Houston.

"When you think about innovation as a whole, it's mired with risk and uncertainty," she says. "You never know if something's going to work or not. And part of what we have to do with any idea that we're building in the studio or anything that our clients are doing around innovation, we have to do as much as we can to mitigate that risk and uncertainty. And that's kind of what KPMG's wheelhouse is." Read more.

Brock Murphy, Parent ProTech co-founder

Brock Murphy launched Parent ProTech last fall. Photo via parentprotech.com

Houston-based Parent ProTech is a one-stop shop for parental education on technology and applications that their kids use.

“Our goal is to make everyone the best digital parent possible,” Brock Murphy, Parent ProTech co-founder, tells InnovationMap. “We understand technology and the role it plays in influencing the next generation. So we help parents when it comes to understanding the platforms, how to use them and how to unlock the parental controls that can be hidden, deeper into these platforms.”

Murphy — with co-founder Drew Wooten and creative director Joshua Adams — launched the platform in September 2022. Since then, Parent ProTech has made its mark through partnerships with schools in Texas. Read more.

Anu Puvvada, KPMG Studio leader, shares how her team is advancing software solutions while navigating hype cycles and solving billion-dollar-problems. Photo courtesy of KPMG

How this Houston-based studio is tackling billion-dollar problems with internal innovation

Q&A

In 2021, KPMG, a New York-based global audit, accounting, and advisory service provider, formed a new entity to play in the innovation space. The Houston-based team finds innovative software that benefit KPMG's clients across industries.

"We're really focused on transformative businesses that we can offer our clients in the next three to five years to solve fairly large problems," Anu Puvvada, KPMG Studio leader, tells InnovationMap.

Now, almost two years later, KPMG Studio has spun out its first company, AI-based security startup Cranium, which has raised $7 million in a seed round led by SYN Ventures with support from KPMG.

Established to advance internal innovation, KPMG Studio's technologies don't always get spun out into startups like Cranium, but with support of the team, the early-stage ideas receive guidance from the company's resources with the potential to be rolled into KPMG's suite of services for its clients.

In an interview with InnovationMap, Puvvada shares more about the program, the Cranium spin out, and why she's passionate about leading this initiative from Houston.

InnovationMap: Tell me about KPMG Studio's structure and your overall goal with the program.

Anu Puvvada: I like to think about it more around framing. We frame the studio around three pillars: incubate, accelerate and amplify. We take in a lot of ideas that come from the business and from our clients and we incubate and see which of them are really high growth solving like a very large problem across verticals and horizontals. When I say a big problem — it's got to be a $1 billion-plus problem. With Cranium, we saw some very early indicators, like a rise in AI adoption amongst our clients. We saw that AI was in this spot where it was going to hit an exponential growth marker. We also saw a rise in cyber attacks. All of that plus conversations with clients made us realize that there's there's something big brewing here.

We're looking at a ton of ideas, and then parsing out maybe 10 that we create into the next Cranium. And then in accelerate, we're finding early adopters and we're growing the idea, building it, raising venture capital for the idea if we decide to spin it out.

IM: Seems like a mutually beneficial relationship between KPMG and these innovators, right?

AP: I would say it's good for KPMG because it allows us to innovate differently and innovate with agility. My group actually operates as a startup within a large organization. And then we create this ecosystem around startups inside KPMG, so when it exits, it's got the basis to run on its own. That's important for us because it gives us agility, it lets us really capitalize on our brand. It's not just what it brings us, but also what it brings our clients.

There's a big competitive advantage to innovating inside KPMG. These innovators get to work inside our walls protected by the infrastructure of KPMG. They, they get a technology team to help them build the idea. And they get to use their brand of KPMG, use our marketing engine, our comms engine, like everything that's behind us. A startup outside, it doesn't get any of that. So, it almost like accelerates them into market when the spin out happens. We use the differentiators and the competitive advantage of KPMG in order to amplify the story of that startup and their value proposition in the market.

IM: So there are two paths for these technologies, right?

AP: We either have what we call spin ins, which means it's created and spins into the business or we have spin outs, which is what Cranium is. We classify spin outs into its own startup or a sale of an asset. And then for the spin in, we would license to our clients under the mothership of KPMG.

IM: Is the studio operating completely in Houston?

AP: We source our ideas from all over nationally. I'm in Houston and a lot of my support team is actually in Houston as well. And I work with a lot of the Houston ecosystem around innovation. I really see Houston as a big future market. We are at the center of climate and ESG, the space economy, and medicine. Those are three big like curves that are going to be hitting in the next five years. So, it is integral for studio to be integrated into that ecosystem to position KPMG for the future.

IM: What's your vision for the studio?

AP: I definitely see us taking in more ideas into studio to build internally for our pioneers, which is what we call our innovators — Jonathan Dambrot, who is the founder of Cranium, he's the pioneer. We'll definitely be doing more Craniums that spin out of the firm. And we have a number that are spinning into the firm already.

I also see us evolving to bring in external startups into the studio so we can also give them the entire ecosystem a way to be lifted up and to shepherd each other into the future.

It's really important that anything that we invest in and we work on is staying measured through these hype cycles that are happening. We need to make sure that these ideas are grounded in the problem that's being solved in an adaptable way and that there's a strong market need for it. That's something that the studio really spends a lot of time doing in the beginning, which kind of helps mitigate some of these hype cycles for us and our clients.

When you think about innovation as a whole, it's mired with risk and uncertainty. You never know if something's going to work or not. And part of what we have to do with any idea that we're building in the studio or anything that our clients are doing around innovation, we have to do as much as we can to mitigate that risk and uncertainty. And that's kind of what KPMG's wheelhouse is.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.