This week's innovators to know in Houston includes Tim Neal of GoExpedi, Shay Curran of UH, and Arun Gir of iEducate. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three gentlemen representing a diverse set of industries — from nanotech and higher education to industrial e-commerce and education.

Tim Neal, CEO of GoExpedi

Tim Neal, CEO of Houston-based GoExpedi, shares how his company plans to scale following its recent series C closing. Photo by Colt Melrose for GoExpedi

Timing is everything, and Tim Neal says it's been a key factor in his company's success. GoExpedi acts as an Amazon of industrial business, basically. Just as the e-commerce platform has made online ordering easy, trackable, and fast, so has GoExpedi for industrial parts. And, thanks to companies like Amazon and on-demand ordering in general, this type of fast and reliable service is what everyone expects now.

"The labor pool in the oil and gas space in particular — 50 percent of it turn it over. Now you're no longer having these tradesmen who are 60-plus years old and walking encyclopedias. You have a younger workforce that's used to buying on eCommerce and their daily life. So, it's helping them by technical parts in a not technical way," Neal says in a Q&A with InnovationMap. "We just had a pool of clients who were more tech native and who had more familiarity with transacting online." Click here to read more.

Seamus Curran, CEO and founder of Integricote

University of Houston professor and entrepreneur, Seamus Curran, has pivoted amid the pandemic to use his nanotechnology expertise to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Integricote

Seamus Curran's life went from juggling teaching, research, and running his startup from early morning to late at night every day to working and teaching from home when the pandemic hit. He started looking into the virus and realized his nanotechnology actually has a real application in protecting people. First, he started coating masks. Lately he's been working on a new line of protection.

"The big thing for me when we were shut down was that people couldn't go to work or school. The country can't live that way — but you can't send people back to work in a world that's not safe," Curran says in this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "How do you create a safer environment? That's the thing that really got me going in the beginning in the summer. We looked at filters." Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Arun Gir, CEO of iEducate

Houston-based iEducate is connecting local tutors and mentors to students. Photo courtesy of iEducate

Now more than ever, young students need hands-on instruction to keep up in their studies, which for so many still are being conducted virtually. iEducate engages student mentors from the nearby University of Houston education program and graduating Alief ISD high school students to work alongside teachers to ensure that every child has the academic support needed to achieve their full potential.

"We are building on our unique range of educational support services that we have provided over the past to help schools advance student learning in these uncertain times," says Arun Gir, CEO of iEducate.

Gir says the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent school closings have forced iEducate to adapt, just like many other teachers and educators. For the first time, they are offering a needs assessment to any school that is interested in working with them. Click here to read more.

Houston-based iEducate is connecting local tutors and mentors to students. Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

Houston-area education platform looking for new schools to help teachers with online tools

online education

A Houston-based nonprofit mentorship program that matches underperforming second to fifth graders with college student tutors to provide them targeted support has adapted to the online schooling era, by introducing hybrid learning services in partnership with Texas Region 4 Education Service Center.

iEducate engages student mentors from the nearby University of Houston education program and graduating Alief ISD high school students to work alongside teachers to ensure that every child has the academic support needed to achieve their full potential.

"Before the pandemic closed schools, our vision was to have an in-person system mixing public institutions with our local community," says Arun Gir, CEO of iEducate. "Mentors could provide their math, science, and literacy skills to prove targeted support to students, encouraging teachers to differentiate learning by identifying groups that could benefit the most from our help."

Gir says the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent school closings have forced iEducate to adapt, just like many other teachers and educators. For the first time, they are offering a needs assessment to any school that is interested in working with them.

"We are building on our unique range of educational support services that we have provided over the past to help schools advance student learning in these uncertain times," says Gir.

With their recently announced partnership with the Texas Region 4 Education Service Center, they will be able to train mentors on instructional tools and strategies to support any type of instruction including in-person, remote, and hybrid instruction.

"We are excited to collaborate with iEducate," says Pam Wells, executive director of Region 4 Education Service Center. "Their transformational work confirms the value that iEducate brings along with their ability to adapt and respond to our evolving educational needs."

The nonprofit, which was founded in 2013, started off as a hobby with Gir and volunteers working directly with individual schools, but after a few years, he left his job to work on building iEducate.

"Our focus is definitely on closing that achievement gap," says Gir. "One of our biggest issues is the literacy gap because that's a precursor to any type of student achievement beyond the early years. Personalized instruction focused on getting the portion of the class that is behind has led to growth for the students."

This summer, they conducted a needs assessment and revamped their mentorship program for a virtual classroom's needs, including calling out for more mentors. More than 600 applicants answered the call, ready to support over 7,000 students during the 2020-2021 school year.

"There was an overwhelming need for new types of assistance," says Gir. "From helping parents learn how to use online digital learning platforms to one-on-one tutoring and group tutoring sessions in the evening for students and parents, our mentors are willing and able and they have risen to the challenge."

To learn more about working with iEducate, email contact@iEducateUSA.org.

"We are navigating unexplored waters," says Gir. "We thought about opening up any school in the Houston area because we know that COVID-19 response measures are very decentralized which means we have to go directly to the source."

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Houston startup recognized for inclusivity on journey to commercialize next-gen therapeutics

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A new Houston biotech company won a special award at the 16th Annual SXSW Pitch Award Ceremony earlier this month.

Phiogen, one of 45 companies that competed in nine categories, was the winner for best inclusivity, much to the surprise of the company’s CEO, Amanda Burkhardt.

Burkhardt tells InnovationMap that while she wanted to represent the heavily female patient population that Phiogen seeks to treat, really she just hires the most skilled scientists.

“The best talent was the folks that we have and it ends up being we have three green card holders on our team. As far as ethnicities, we have on our team we have Indian, African-American, Korean, Chinese Pakistani, Moroccan and Hispanic people and that just kind of just makes up the people who helped us on a day-to-day basis,” she explains.

Phiogen was selected out of 670 companies to be in the health and nutrition category at SXSW.

“We did really well, but there was another company that also did really well. And so we were not selected for the pitch competition, which we were a little bummed about because I killed the pitch,” Burkhardt recalls.

But Phiogen is worthy of note, pitch competition or not. The new company spun off from research at Dr. Anthony Maresso’s TAILOR Labs, a personalized phage therapy center at Baylor College of Medicine, last June.

“Our whole goal is to create the next generation of anti-infectives,” says Burkhardt.

That means that the company is making alternatives to antibiotics, but as Burkhardt says, “We’re hoping to be better than antibiotics.”

How does it work? Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria.

“You can imagine them as the predators in the bacteria world, but they don't infect humans. They don't affect animals. They only infect bacteria,” Burkhardt explains.

Phiogen utilizes carefully honed bacteriophages to attack bacteria that include the baddies behind urinary tract infection (UTI), bacteremia (bacteria in the blood), and skin wounds.

The team’s primary focus is on treatment-resistant UTI. One example was a male patient who received Phiogen’s treatment thanks to an emergency-use authorization from the FDA. The gentleman had been suffering from an infection for 20 years. He was treated with Phiogen’s bacteriophage therapy for two weeks and completely cleared his infection with no recurrence.

Amanda Burkhardt is the CEO of Phiogen. Photo via LinkedIn

But Phiogen has its sights set well beyond the first maladies it’s treated. An oft-quoted 2016 report projected that by 2050, 10 million people a year will be dying from drug-resistant infections.

“A lot of scientists call it the silent pandemic because it's happening now, we're living in it, but there's just not as much being said about it because it normally happens to people who are already in the hospital for something else, or it's a comorbidity, but that's not always the case, especially when we're talking about urinary tract infections,” says Burkhardt.

Bacteriophages are important because they can be quickly trained to fight against resistant strains, whereas it takes years and millions of dollars to develop new antibiotics. There are 13 clinical trials that are currently taking place for bacteriophage therapy. Burkhardt estimates that the treatment method will likely gain FDA approval in the next five years.

“The FDA actually has been super flexible on progressing forward. Because they are naturally occurring, there's not really a safety risk with these products,” she says.

And Burkhardt, whose background is in life-science commercialization, says there’s no better place to build Phiogen than in Houston.

“You have Boston, you have the Bay [Area], and you have the Gulf Coast,” she says. “And Houston is cheaper, the people are friendlier, and it’s not a bad place to be in the winter.”

She also mentions the impressive shadow that Helix Park will cast over the ecosystem. Phiogen will move later this year to the new campus — one of the labs selected to join Baylor College of Medicine.

And as for that prize, chances are, it won’t be Phiogen’s last.

Houston student selected for prestigious health care research program

bright future

A Houston-area undergraduate student has been tapped for a prestigious national program that pairs early-career investigators with health research professionals.

Mielad Ziaee was selected for the National Institutes of Health’s 2023-2024 All of Us Research Scholar Program, which connects young innovators with experts "working to advance the field of precision medicine," according to a statement from UH. Ziaee – a 20-year-old majoring in psychology and minoring in biology, medicine and society who plans to graduate in 2025 — plans to research how genomics, or the studying of a person's DNA, can be used to impact health.

“I’ll be one of the ones that define what this field of personalized, precision medicine will look like in the future,” Ziaee said in a statement. “It’s exciting and it’s a big responsibility that will involve engaging diverse populations and stakeholders from different systems – from researchers to health care providers to policymakers.”

Ziaee aims to become a physician who can use an understanding of social health conditions to guide his clinical practice. At a young age, he was inspired to go into the field by his family's own experience.

According to UH, Ziaee is the oldest child of Iranian American immigrants. He saw firsthand the challenges of how language and cultural barriers can impact patients' access to and level of care.

“I think a lot of people define health as purely biological, but a lot of other factors influence our well-being, such as mental health, financial health, and even access to good food, medical care and the internet,” he said in a statement. “I am interested in seeing the relationship among all these things and how they impact our health. So far, a lot of health policies and systems have not really looked beyond biology.”

"I want everyone to have an equal chance to access health care and take charge of their well-being. We need to have the systems in place that let people do that,” he added.

Ziaee is already on his way to helping Houston-based and national health systems and organizations make headway in this area.

He was named as a student regent on the UH System Board of Regents last year, sits on the board of the Houston chapter of the American Red Cross, and is an Albert Schweitzer Fellow.

Last year he was a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention John R. Lewis scholar, for which he presented his research project about predicting food insecurity in pediatric clinical settings and recommendations to improve the assessment based off his summer research with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Prior to this, he completed a 10-week guided research experience using data visualization and predictive modeling techniques to assess food insecurity in the Third Ward.

“I just took every opportunity that came to me,” Ziaee said. “All my experiences connect with my central desire to increase health access and improve health care. I am very intentional about connecting the dots to my passion.”

Earlier this year, three UH student researchers were named among 16 other early-stage research projects at U.S. colleges and universities to receive a total of $17.4 million from the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM). The projects were each awarded between about $750,000 to up to $1.5 million.

Houston tech entrepreneur expands energy data co. in Europe, continues to scale

houston innovators podcast episode 229

The technology that Amperon provides its customers — a comprehensive, AI-backed data analytics platform — is majorly key to the energy industry and the transition of the sector. But CEO Sean Kelly says he doesn't run his business like an energy company.

Kelly explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that he chooses to run Amperon as a tech company when it comes to hiring and scaling.

"There are a lot of energy companies that do tech — they'll hire a large IT department, they'll outsource a bunch of things, and they'll try to undergo a product themselves because they think it should be IP," he says on the show. "A tech company means that at your core, you're trying to build the best and brightest technology."

To Kelly, Amperon should be hiring in the same field as Google and other big tech companies that sit at the top of the market. And Kelly has done a lot of hiring recently. Recently closing the company's $20 million series B round last fall led by Energize Capital, Amperon has tripled its team in the past 14 months.

With his growing team, Kelly also speaks to the importance of partnerships as the company scales. Earlier this month, Amperon announced that it is replatforming its AI-powered energy analytics technology onto Microsoft Azure. The partnership with the tech giant allows Amperon's energy sector clients to use Microsoft's analytics stack with Amperon data.

And there are more collaborations where that comes from.

"For Amperon, 2024 is the year of partnerships," Kelly says on the podcast. "I think you'll see partnership announcements here in the next couple of quarters."

Along with more partners, Amperon is entering an era of expansion, specifically in Europe, which Kelly says has taken place at a fast pace.

"Amperon will be live in a month in 25 countries," he says.

While Amperon's technology isn't energy transition specific, Kelly shares how it's been surprising how many clean tech and climate tech lists Amperon has made it on.

"We don't brand ourselves as a clean tech company," Kelly says, "but we have four of the top six or eight wind providers who have all invested in Amperon. So, there's something there."

Amperon, which originally founded in 2018 before relocating to Houston a couple of years ago, is providing technology that helps customers move toward a lower carbon future.

"If you look at our customer base, Amperon is the heart of the energy transition. And Houston is the heart of the energy transition," he says.