This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Emmanuel Urquieta of TRISH, Ariel Jones of Qualtrics XM, and Lawson Gow of Pokatok. Photos courtesy

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


Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta, chief medical officer of TRISH

Emmanuel Urquieta, chief medical officer of TRISH, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Since 2021, the Translational Research Institute for Space Health has conducted its research on four missions — which has meant an unparalleled access to space health data for TRISH.

“We really saw the value of implementing research in civilians because they are different from your traditional government astronaut,” Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta, chief medical officer for TRISH, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “In civilians, you see a more diverse population.”

Urquieta says TRISH's experiments on these missions all fall within a few pillars of space health, including space's effects on sensory motor skills, like balance and motion sickness, as well as mental health, environmental data from the vehicles, vital monitoring, and more. Read more.

Ariel Jones, head of health care provider solution strategy for Qualtrics XM

As the health care industry continues to evolve, experience management technology will play an increasingly important role in addressing health equity gaps and improving the health and well-being of patients across the globe. Photo courtesy

In a guest column for InnovationMap, Ariel Jones, head of health care provider solution strategy for Qualtrics XM, addresses inequalities in health care — and how technology, specifical experience management tech, can help bridge the gap.

"As the health care industry continues to evolve, experience management technology will play an increasingly important role in addressing health equity gaps and improving the health and well-being of patients across the globe," she writes. Read more.

Lawson Gow, co-founder of Pokatok

A new sports festival is headed to Houston next year. Photo courtesy of Pokatok

Pokatok, the recently announced, four-day sports festival is slated to take place April 4-7, 2024.

“Pokatok will not only be the largest gathering of the entire sports tech ecosystem, it will also be a true fan festival for sports enthusiasts,” says Gow in the news release. “Everyone speaks the language of sport, it’s an incredibly powerful unifier of our society, and this festival will bring together people from around the world to experience hundreds of events revolving around the new and the next in sport.”

The festival, which has secured support from Houston First, the Greater Houston Partnership, and the Harris County Houston Sports Authority to put on the event, will feature two tracks — one focused on sports innovation and the other surrounding a fan experience. Pokatok X will include an expo and showcase focused on sports innovation, bringing together startups, investors, accelerators, athletes, and industry experts to dive into sports tech. Read more.

As the health care industry continues to evolve, experience management technology will play an increasingly important role in addressing health equity gaps and improving the health and well-being of patients across the globe. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: How technology can be used to bridge the health equity gap

guest column

Progressively over the last decade, the health care industry has become increasingly aware of the role that social determinants of health play in the health outcomes of patients.

Social determinants of health, or SDOH, are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age, and they have a significant impact on a person's health and well-being. Examples of SDOH include income, education level, housing, and access to healthy food.

One of the key challenges facing health care organizations and providers is how to address health equity gaps, which are the differences in health outcomes between different populations. Health equity gaps are often caused by social determinants of health, and they can be particularly pronounced among vulnerable populations such as low-income communities, racial and ethnic minorities, and those living in rural areas.

Experience management technology has emerged as a powerful tool for addressing these equity gaps. This technology uses feedback, behaviors, and other relevant SDOH data in order to understand the unique needs of different populations and develop targeted interventions to improve their health outcomes.

One of the key ways that experience management technology can help decrease health equity gaps is by segmenting populations by social determinants of health. By collecting data on patients' demographics, such as their age, race, income, and education level, health care organizations can gain a better understanding of the SDOH that are most relevant to each population. This information can be used to develop personalized actions that address the specific needs of each population, rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all approach.

For example, health care organizations could use experience management technology to gather feedback from patients on their access to healthy food. By segmenting the patient population by zip code, health care organizations could identify patients in rural areas who do not have easy access to quality care facilities and providers. These patients could then be targeted with interventions such as transportation assistance programs or care coordination programs, which could help address their specific needs.

In addition to segmenting populations by social determinants of health, experience management technology can also help health care organizations gather insights into patient behaviors. By integrating data on patients' health behaviors, such as adherence to treatment or missed appointments, health care organizations can develop targeted interventions that encourage healthy behaviors.

For example, health care providers could use experience management technology to collect data on patients' treatment habits. Patients who report low adherence to treatment could be targeted with interventions such as treatment education programs or care coaching, which could help them develop healthier habits over time.

Finally, experience management technology can help health care organizations gain insight into their patient’s end to end journey. By integrating data from multiple sources, such as electronic health records, patient feedback, and social determinants of health data, health care organizations can develop a more comprehensive understanding of patients' health needs and brand expectations. This unified illustration allows health care organizations to improve business outcomes such as lower readmission rates, and create loyal patients that will refer their friends and family in the most important and sensitive moments in their lives.

In conclusion, experience management technology has emerged as a powerful tool for addressing health equity gaps by segmenting populations by social determinants of health, understanding and acting on their unique needs through feedback, behaviors, and dynamic integrations. By leveraging this technology, health care organizations can develop unique solutions that improve the health outcomes of vulnerable populations, such as low-income communities, racial and ethnic minorities, and those living in rural areas.

As the health care industry continues to evolve, experience management technology will play an increasingly important role in addressing health equity gaps and improving the health and well-being of patients across the globe.

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Ariel Jones is the head of health care provider solution strategy for Qualtrics XM, an American Experience Management company providing software solutions for customer and employee experience.

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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.