Houston House at SXSW 2024 featured conversations about startup scaling, tips from CEOs, and more. Photo via Allie Danziger/LinkedIn

Houston innovators talked big topics at SXSW 2024 — from the startup scaling and converging industries to the future of work.

Houston House, which was put on by the Greater Houston Partnership on March 11, hosted four panels full of experts from Houston. If you missed the day-long activation, here are some highlights from the experts who each commented on the future of the Bayou City when it comes to startups, technology, innovation, and the next generation's workforce.

"When we think about Houston, we think about access to at-scale infrastructure, amenities, and workforce and talent pools."

— Remington Tonar, co-founder and chief growth officer at Cart.com, says about why the company chose to return its headquarters back to Houston last year. One of these amenities, Tonar explained, is Houston's global airports.

"If New York and Austin had a baby, it would be Houston, because you have friendly people with a big-city culture."

— Mitra Miller, vice president and board member of Houston Angel Network, says, adding that Houston has a cost efficiency to it, which should be at the forefront of founders' minds when considering where to locate.

"We are not only attracting global talents, we are also attracting global wealth and foreign investments because we are the rising city of the future. We are the global launch pad where you can scale internationally very quickly."

— Sunny Zhang, founder of TrueLeap, says adding how there's a redistribution of global workforce happening when you consider ongoing global affairs.

"We overwhelmingly as a company, and my co-founder would agree, knew we had to go the Houston path. And we started funneling a lot more resources here."

— Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, says, explaining that the pandemic helped equalize the talent across the country, and this has been to the benefit of cities like Houston.

"Houston is here with arms open, welcoming people and actively recruiting."

— Sean Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Amperon, says, emphasizing how Texas has made moves to being business friendly. Amperon was founded in New York, before moving to Houston a couple years ago.

"There is a revolution starting to happen in Houston right now."

— Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, says, first commenting on the momentum from Rice University, where his company's technology originates from. But, as he adds, when you compare the ecosystem when the startup was founded in 2019 to where it's at now, "there is so much more happening."

"Houston has a critical mass in terms of aerospace."

— Stephanie Munez Murphy of Aegus Aerospace says, saying specifically that NASA's Johnson Space Center holds some responsibility for that. "JSC is the home of opening up space commercialization."

"There's diversity in industries people are coming from, but also in terms of experience and expertise that (Houstonians) have."

— Robyn Cardwell of Omniscience says, adding that Houston's diversity goes further than just where people originate from. "Houston has all these pieces put together ... for growing and scaling organizations," she adds.

"I've worked with thousands of students in Houston who are actively looking to better themselves and grow their career post college or post high school and go into the workforce."

— Allie Danziger of Ascent Funding says, adding that Gen Z, which is already entering the workforce, is entrepreneurial and ready to change the world. "Seeing the energy of Houstonians is just thrilling," she adds.

"We're working together in the Houston community. ... There are so many opportunities to collaborate but we need conveners." 

— Stacy Putman of INEOS says, adding that within industry there has been a lack of discussion and collaboration because of competition. But, as she's observing, that's changing thanks to conveners at colleges or at the Greater Houston Partnership.

"The opportunity for Houston is that everybody has to step up to be in some way, shape, or form helping us with this."

— Raj Salhotra of Momentum Education says about supporting the future workforce of Houston, including low-income household students.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Allie Danziger of Ascent Funding, Adrian Trömel of Rice University, and Michael Suffredini of Axiom Space. 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 education to space tech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Allie Danziger, senior vice president and general manager of student success at Ascent Funding

Allie Danziger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss her edtech startup Ampersand's exit. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

For the second time in less than six years, Houston entrepreneur Allie Danziger has navigated a company through an exit. But, with the two exists under her belt, Danziger says the two transactions could not be any more different.

Danziger founded Integrate Agency, a digital-focused public relations firm, in 2009 and sold it to another marketing and PR firm based in Austin in 2018. She founded her next company, Ampersand Professionals, in 2020 to address the challenges for upskilling young professionals to prepare them for success in the workplace — something employers really wanted, but struggled to do consistently.

Last month, Ampersand was acquired by Ascent Funding, a college loan provider that's building out a platform to support its college-aged borrowers. In this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Danziger shares how this opportunity came about and looks back on these two pivotal deals. Read more.

Adrian Trömel, assistant vice president for strategy and investments at Rice University's Office of Innovation

In his new role, Adrian Trömel will oversee the creation of the Rice Nexus, an innovation hub within the Ion that aims to bridge the gap between the university and Houston's innovation ecosystem. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University’s Office of Innovation has named Houston materials scientist-turned-entrepreneur Adrian Trömel as its new assistant vice president for strategy and investments.

Trömel founded non-invasive neurostimulation medical device company CNX Medical at the Texas Medical Innovation Institute in 2019 and most recently served as chief growth officer for Hamilton Health Box, which brings an on-site care team to company offices.

In his new role, Trömel will oversee the creation of the Rice Nexus, an innovation hub within the Ion that aims to bridge the gap between the university and Houston's innovation ecosystem. He will also lead the creation of a translational research grant fund and a university-affiliated venture fund for Rice-affiliated entrepreneurs. Read more.

Michael Suffredini, CEO and president of Axiom Space

Axiom Space CEO Michael Suffredini has announced the company's series C round with support from Aljazira Capital. Photo courtesy of Axiom Space

Houston has another unicorn — a company valued at $1 billion or more — thanks to a recent round of funding.

Axiom Space released the news this week that it's closed its series C round of funding to the tune of $350 million. While the company didn't release its valuation, it confirmed to Bloomberg that it's over the $1 billion threshold. Axiom reports that, according to available data, it's now raised the second-most funding of any private space company in 2023 behind SpaceX.

Saudi Arabia-based Aljazira Capital and South Korea-based Boryung Co. led the round. To date, Axiom has raised over $505 million with $2.2 billion in customer contracts, according to the company.

“We are honored to team with investors like Aljazira Capital, Boryung and others, who are committed to realizing the Axiom Space vision,” Axiom Space CEO and president Michael Suffredini says in a news release. “Together, we are working to serve innovators in medicine, materials science, and on-orbit infrastructure who represent billions of dollars in demand over the coming decade.Read more.

Allie Danziger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss her edtech startup Ampersand's exit. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

How this Houston edtech startup's acquisition is primed to further advance platform reach, impact

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 200

For the second time in less than six years, Houston entrepreneur Allie Danziger has navigated a company through an exit. But, with the two exists under her belt, Danziger says the two transactions could not be any more different.

Danziger founded Integrate Agency, a digital-focused public relations firm, in 2009 and sold it to another marketing and PR firm based in Austin in 2018. She founded her next company, Ampersand Professionals, in 2020 to address the challenges for upskilling young professionals to prepare them for success in the workplace — something employers really wanted, but struggled to do consistently.

Last month, Ampersand was acquired by Ascent Funding, a college loan provider that's building out a platform to support its college-aged borrowers. In this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Danziger shares how this opportunity came about and looks back on these two pivotal deals.

"Integrate definitely was not built to sell — I didn't even know that people sold businesses when I was 24 (and started the agency," Danziger, who worked in PR her entire career at that time, says, adding that she thought she'd work at the company her whole life before passing it down to her children. "It ended up being a life-changing experience and opportunity because it did open my eyes up to other other things that I could do professionally — and also just kind of like the way that businesses are structured and run."

One of those things she considered post acquisition was upskilling entry-level employees. At Integrate, she hired a lot of interns and recent college graduates. She recognized there was a gap in the market. The first problem she identified was the need to match interns to positions at companies in an optimized way. While that's how the company started, it pivoted as Danziger says she saw the bigger need not for finding interns, but for making sure they were ready for their positions from the start.

"Most business leaders need their interns and entry-level employees starting day one with an understanding of how to communicate, and they don't really have the resources to teach them some of these skills," she explains.

Once the Ampersand platform, which has tons of resources and hours of instruction loaded on it, the challenge was finding the stakeholders that wanted the platform to exist — her potential customers. Was it the colleges or the employers? Through this journey, she realized that college loan lenders are part of that equation too.

"The lenders — the ones who are giving the student loans — they're the ones who really need them to be successful in the workplace," Danziger explains, saying the success of their loan recipients ensures a timely payout for the lender. "Their business model is predicated on students being successful, and I'd always known that, but not quite known what to do with that knowledge."

Danziger says the idea for acquisition, while always in the back of her mind, really became a possibility when she went out to raise funding.

"You're always raising money, and you're always for sale," Danziger says of the startup journey.

When a potential investor raised the idea of being a potential acquirer, Danziger says she started doing some soul searching. The right acquisition deal could help her address the milestones she wanted to reach with investment funding — growing her team, expanding her technology, and broadening reach. Through a diligent process, Danziger decided on Ascent from a few other potential acquirers.

"I'm not going anywhere. I want to still keep solving this problem, but with a larger team and larger resources," she says. "Either I could go find that myself, or I could join forces we could join forces with an established organization."

Danziger says her role at Ascent is still being constructed in terms of scope and responsibilities, but her title as of now is senior vice president and general manager of student success. She will lead the company's educational program that focuses on equipping students with skills from education to employment.

She shares more on the acquisition process — including her advice to startups thinking about the M&A path. Listen to the interview here — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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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.