This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Rachel Moctron of ClassPass, Sid Upadhyay of WizeHire, and Ashley Small of Medley Inc. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries recently making headlines — from fitness tech and software to PR and communications.

Rachel Moncton, vice president of Global Marketing at ClassPass

Rachel Moncton shares why ClassPass tapped Houston as a prime place to expand. Photo courtesy of ClassPass

ClassPass recently announced its entrance into the Houston market, and at the helm of the company's new local presence is Rachel Moncton. In a guest article for InnovationMap, she shares why ClassPass was so interested in Houston. The search actually started four years ago, but the tech company finally landed in Houston for its fourth location.

"In 2017, the ClassPass team spent nine months conducting an intensive nationwide search for a city that matched our mission and values," Moncton writes. "As a brand focused on supporting an active lifestyle, we wanted a city that offered a connection to the outdoors. One of the most important driving factors in our search was finding a city where we could attract incredible talent to our team. Though we settled on Missoula, Houston was high on the list." Click here to read more.

Sid Upadhyay, co-founder and CEO of WizeHire

A Houston startup has closed a $7.5 million round of funding with mostly local investment. Photo courtesy of WizeHire

Sid Upadhyay's startup has something to celebrate. The software company founded in Houston closed a $7.5 million series A round of funding led by two Houston-area venture capital firms — Amplo and Mercury Fund. According to a news release, WizeHire will use the funds to scale their business, which is centered around providing personalized hiring resources to small businesses.

"We're a small business helping small businesses with a team of people looking out for you," says Upadhyay. "Hiring is complex and personal. Our customers see what we do not just as software; they see us as a trusted advisor." Click here to read more.

Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc.

From events to online shopping — here are four tech trends to look out for this year according to Ashley Small. Photo courtesy of Medley

For Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc., innovation and inclusion go hand in hand. Business leaders need diverse voices at the table to drive new ideas and innovation.

"Innovation is actually impossible without diversity," Small says on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "A part of this is also being really open minded to the fact that you are going to hear ideas that sound and look different. Be open to that, because that is 100 percent the point."

Small discusses more about how she's honoring Black History Month with her team and the evolution the PR and media industries have seen over the past decade on the episode. Click here to stream the episode and read more.

Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc., joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss COVID-19's affect on her business and fostering diversity at startups. Photo courtesy of Medley Inc.

Houston founder calls for business leaders to 'make room for diverse voices'

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 70

Last year was one of quick pivots and tech solutions for Ashley Small and her company's clients. Small — the CEO and founder of Medley Inc., a Houston-based branding and public relations firm — works with both for-profit and nonprofit entities to tell their stories, and of course 2020 had its challenges in doing so. But they weren't anything Small, her team, and technology couldn't overcome.

Small founded Medley over 12 years ago, and for the past three of those years, her team has been completely virtual. She shares on the Houston Innovators podcast that this give her team a headstart on being able to find and quickly adopt quick tech solutions — but last year's shutdown also meant navigating this for all her clients.

"The biggest obstacle we had to overcome was figuring out what the best technology was for each client," Small says. "Where the learning curve has been is understanding all the available resources out there and understanding how offline experiences can help audiences connect online."

Founded in Houston, Medley has grown to the Los Angeles and Chicago markets over the years — and Small says that was intentional. An Oklahoma native, Small fell in love with Houston's diversity when she attended Texas Southern University, and sought out other diverse markets to expand her business. And, as a Black female founder, she fosters an inclusive community at her company — and wants to remind her fellow business owners how imperative it is to running an innovative company.

"Innovation is actually impossible without diversity," Small says, adding that when you bring different people to the table, you get new ways of thinking. "A part of this is also being really open minded to the fact that you are going to hear ideas that sound and look different. Be open to that, because that is 100 percent the point."

Small knows early-stage companies aren't always able to hire a bunch of people from diverse backgrounds right from the start, but there are other ways to surround yourself with diverse ideas.

"Make room for diverse voices -- and you may have to be a bit creative," Small says.

Medley's team also realizes that not every startup can afford to bring on an in-house or third-party PR team, but the company has a few options for startups, such as a three-month retainer to start as well as a series of workshops available online for as low as $19.

Small discusses more about how she's honoring Black History Month with her team and the evolution the PR and media industries have seen over the past decade on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Nicole Rogers of Validere, Allie Danziger of Ampersand, and Ashley Small of Medley Inc. Courtesy photos

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three female innovators across industries — from energy tech to business entrepreneurship.

Nicole Rogers, senior vice president at Validere

Nicole Rogers, senior vice president at Validere, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how her company has grown exponentially over the past year. Photo courtesy of Validere

Nicole Rogers joined Canadian startup Validere during the summer last year — right smack dab in the middle of a pandemic. But despite COVID-19 and the drop in oil prices, the energy company grew exponentially — in clientbase, in venture capital support, and in employee count.

"One of the things we found that was to our advantage throughout the pandemic was a lot of folks in oil were having a career identity crisis. Oil really struggles with employment elasticity," Rogers says. "A lot of the colleagues we were talking to were just fatigued with the ups and downs going on in the past decade."

Rogers, who's based in the company's Houston office, shares more about Validere's growth and opportunities in the new year — plus what she thinks Houston needs to do to maintain its status of energy capital of the world in the episode. Click here to read more and to stream the podcast.

Allie Danziger, founder of Ampersand

Houston entrepreneur, Allie Danziger, wanted to create a program for young professionals looking to gain experience in unprecedented times. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

Allie Danziger has two small children, but she started thinking about if her kids were college age, would she want them to enroll in a virtual college experience or hold off for a time where they could have a more traditional experience. Realizing she probably wasn't alone, she thought about how she could create an alternative for high school grads — in this time of the pandemic but also in a time where college degrees aren't the best option for job security.

"I really believe that it scales way beyond this pandemic," says Danziger. In her research, she saw a lack of career-focused gap curriculums and resources available. "There are no programs that help you determine what the right path for you is—to really do that self-exploration and then apply it to your career path," she explains. Click here to read more.

Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc.

From events to online shopping — here are four tech trends to look out for this year according to Ashley Small. Photo courtesy of Medley

It's a new year and the perfect time to reflect on where society is at from a technological standpoint. In light of the pandemic and an overarching trend of tapping into tech to provide solutions to COVID-19-related challenges, 2021 will likely see more of these trends.

"As a business owner, it's clear to me that many of these shifts will persist long after the pandemic has ended," writes Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc., in a guest column for InnovationMap.

From subscriptions to online shopping, Small highlighted the types of tech in the digital realm that deserve our special attention in 2021. Click here to read more.

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Houston health tech innovator collaborates on promising medical device funded by DOD

team work

The United States Department of Defense has awarded a grant that will allow the Texas Heart Institute and Rice University to continue to break ground on a novel left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that could be an alternative to current devices that prevent heart transplantation and are a long-term option in end-stage heart failure.

The grant is part of the DOD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). It was awarded to Georgia Institute of Technology, one of four collaborators on the project that will be designed and evaluated by the co-investigator Yaxin Wang. Wang is part of O.H. “Bud” Frazier’s team at Texas Heart Institute, where she is director of Innovative Device & Engineering Applications Lab. The other institution working on the new LVAD is North Carolina State University.

The project is funded by a four-year, $7.8 million grant. THI will use about $2.94 million of that to fund its part of the research. As Wang explained to us last year, an LVAD is a minimally invasive device that mechanically pumps a person’s own heart. Frazier claims to have performed more than 900 LVAD implantations, but the devices are far from perfect.

The team working on this new research seeks to minimize near-eventualities like blood clot formation, blood damage, and driveline complications such as infection and limitations in mobility. The four institutions will try to innovate with a device featuring new engineering designs, antithrombotic slippery hydrophilic coatings (SLIC), wireless power transfer systems, and magnetically levitated driving systems.

Wang and her team believe that the non-contact-bearing technology will help to decrease the risk of blood clotting and damage when implanting an LVAD. The IDEA Lab will test the efficacy and safety of the SLIC LVAD developed by the multi-institutional team with a lab-bench-based blood flow loop, but also in preclinical models.

“The Texas Heart Institute continues to be a leading center for innovation in mechanical circulatory support systems,” said Joseph G. Rogers, MD, the president and CEO of THI, in a press release.

“This award will further the development and testing of the SLIC LVAD, a device intended to provide an option for a vulnerable patient population and another tool in the armamentarium of the heart failure teams worldwide.”

If it works as hypothesized, the SLIC LVAD will improve upon current LVAD technology, which will boost quality of life for countless heart patients. But the innovation won’t stop there. Technologies that IDEA Lab is testing include wireless power transfer for medical devices and coatings to reduce blood clotting could find applications in many other technologies that could help patients live longer, healthier lives.

Houston investor on SaaS investing and cracking product-market fit

Houston innovators podcast episode 230

Aziz Gilani's career in tech dates back to when he'd ride his bike from Clear Lake High School to a local tech organization that was digitizing manuals from mission control. After years working on every side of the equation of software technology, he's in the driver's seat at a local venture capital firm deploying funding into innovative software businesses.

As managing director at Mercury, the firm he's been at since 2008, Gilani looks for promising startups within the software-as-a-service space — everything from cloud computing and data science and beyond.

"Once a year at Mercury, we sit down with our partners and talk about the next investment cycle and the focuses we have for what makes companies stand out," Gilani says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The current software investment cycle is very focused on companies that have truly achieved product-market fit and are showing large customer adoption."



An example of this type of company is Houston-based RepeatMD, which raised a $50 million series A round last November. Mercury's Fund V, which closed at an oversubscribed $160 million, contributed to RepeatMD's round.

"While looking at that investment, it really made me re-calibrate a lot of my thoughts in terms what product-market fit meant," Gilani says. "At RepeatMD, we had customers that were so eager for the service that they were literally buying into products while we were still making them."

Gilani says he's focused on finding more of these high-growth companies to add to Mercury's portfolio amidst what, admittedly, has been a tough time for venture capital. But 2024 has been looking better for those fundraising.

"We've some potential for improvement," Gilani says. "But overall, the environment is constrained, interest rates haven't budged, and we've seen some potential for IPO activity."

Gilani shares more insight into his investment thesis, what areas of tech he's been focused on recently, and how Houston has developed as an ecosystem on the podcast.

Houston startup scores $12M grant to support clinical evaluation of cancer-fighting drug

fresh funding

Allterum Therapeutics, a Houston biopharmaceutical company, has been awarded a $12 million product development grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

The funds will support the clinical evaluation of a therapeutic antibody that targets acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.

However, CEO and President Atul Varadhachary, who's also the managing director of Fannin Innovation, tells InnovationMap, “Our mission has grown much beyond ALL.”

The antibody, called 4A10, was invented by Scott Durum PhD and his team at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Licensed exclusively by Allterum, a company launched by Fannin, 4A10 is a novel immunotherapy that utilizes a patient’s own immune system to locate and kill cancer cells.

Varadhachary explained that while about 80 percent of patients afflicted with ALL have the B-cell version, the other 20 percent suffer from T-cell ALL.

“Because the TLL population is so small, there are really no approved, effective drugs for it. The last drug that was approved was 18 or 19 years ago,” the CEO-scientist said. 4A10 addresses this unmet need, but also goes beyond it.

Because 4A10 targets CD127, also known as the interleukin-7 receptor, it could be useful in the treatment of myriad cancers. In fact, the receptor is expressed not just in hematological cancers like ALL, but also solid tumors like breast, lung, and colorectal cancers. There’s also “robust data,” according to Varadhachary for the antibody’s success against B-cell ALL, as well as many other cancers.

“Now what we're doing in parallel with doing the development for ALL is that we're continuing to do additional preclinical work in these other indications, and then at some point, we will raise a series A financing that will allow us to expand markets into things which are much more commercially attractive,” Varadhachary explains.

Why did they go for the less commercially viable application first? As Varadhachary put it, “The Fannin model is to allow us to go after areas which are major unmet medical needs, even if they are not necessarily as attractive on a commercial basis.”

But betting on a less common malady could have a bigger payoff than the Allterum team originally expected.

Before the new CPRIT grant, Allterum’s funding included a previous seed grant from CPRIT of $3 million. Other funds included an SBIR grant from NCI, as well as another NCI program called NExT, which deals specifically with experimental therapies.

“To get an antibody from research into clinical testing takes about $10 million,” Varadhachary says. “It's an expensive proposition.”

With this, and other nontraditional financing, the company was able to take what Varadhachary called “a huge unmet medical need but a really tiny commercial market” and potentially help combat a raft of other childhood cancers.

“That's our vision. It's not economically hugely attractive, but we think it's important,” says Varadhachary.

Atul Varadhachary is the managing director of Fannin Innovation. Photo via LinkedIn