This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Natara Branch of Houston Exponential, Tim Latimer of Fervo Energy, and Ayse McCracken of Ignite. 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 recently making headlines in Houston across energy, health care, and more.

Natara Branch, CEO of Houston Exponential

Natara Branch joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss changes to the organization's spring summit. Photo courtesy of HX

For three years, Houston Exponential has hosted a week-long event showcasing and connecting Houston's tech and innovation community, but next year it might look a little different.

Houston Tech Rodeo, which originated in 2020, has been rebranded to H-Town Roundup, but the week of innovation and entrepreneurship still has the same goal of providing programming and events that connect and educate Houstonians. And, for the ease of transition, the organization is still conveniently referring to the event as HTR.

Natara Branch, CEO of Houston Exponential, says the change is meant to make for a more inclusive experience for entrepreneurs of small businesses, something she's seen a need for since she took on her role last year.

"This year, we've had the better part of a year to think about what can be different and how can we serve the founder," she says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Read more.


Tim Latimer, CEO and founder of Fervo Energy

Tim Latimer, CEO and co-founder of Fervo Energy. Photo via LinkedIn

Google is on a mission to run all of its data centers and office campuses on constant carbon-free energy by 2030, and the tech giant is one step closer to that goal thanks to technology from a Houston startup.

Last week, Google announced that its 24/7 carbon-free energy, or CFE, in Nevada to power its local data center in the state is officially operational. The facility is powered by Houston-based Fervo Energy's geothermal technology, a project — called Project Red — that began in 2021 and celebrated its successful pilot this summer. Tim Latimer founded Fervo on the West Coast before relocating the company to Houston. Read more.

Ayse McCracken, founder of Ignite Health Foundation

Ignite has announced a new foundation to further its reach in supporting women in health care. Photo via ignitehealthcare.org

For the past few years, a Houston organization has supported nearly 100 female-founded health tech startups with programming, crucial connections, and more. Now, with a newly launched nonprofit arm, the organization is taking it to the next level to bolster women in health care.

Ignite Healthcare Network, which was founded in 2017 by longtime Houston health care professional Ayse McCracken, has created Ignite Health Foundation, a nonprofit foundation, to go beyond startups and technology to support women in health care across the board with networking and events, in-person and virtual programming, professional development, and more.

"The Foundation is a vehicle for major fundraising grants and foundations allowing Ignite to scale the work we do to discover exceptional women leaders and innovators, connect them with an expert community and help them achieve their career goals," McCracken says. Read more.

Ignite has announced a new foundation to further its reach in supporting women in health care. Photo via ignitehealthcare.org

Houston health tech accelerator launches nonprofit to spark, support female leaders in the industry

igniting change

For the past few years, a Houston organization has supported nearly 100 female-founded health tech startups with programming, crucial connections, and more. Now, with a newly launched nonprofit arm, the organization is taking it to the next level to bolster women in health care.

Ignite Healthcare Network, which was founded in 2017 by longtime Houston health care professional Ayse McCracken, has created Ignite Health Foundation, a nonprofit foundation, to go beyond startups and technology to support women in health care across the board with networking and events, in-person and virtual programming, professional development, and more.

"The Foundation is a vehicle for major fundraising grants and foundations allowing Ignite to scale the work we do to discover exceptional women leaders and innovators, connect them with an expert community and help them achieve their career goals," McCracken says in a news release.

"This initiative not only amplifies our commitment to inspiring innovation in an untapped resource, female leaders and entrepreneurs but also sets the stage for groundbreaking advancements in healthcare," she adds.

The foundation will accept donations from those who look to level the playing field for women in health care leadership and to support innovative endeavours from female founders. The financial support will go toward all of Ignite's programming

"Join us on the journey and invest in women shaping the future of healthcare to create an inclusive and healthier world," says Sara Speer Selber, chair of Friends of Ignite Health Foundation, in the release.

Last month, Ignite hosted its annual Fire Pitch Competition at the Ion, crowning the award recipients and doling out cash prizes. This year, eight finalists of the 19-company cohort presented at the competition for judges and an audience, and three companies secured top spots and prizes.

In a recent interview with InnovationMap, McCracken spoke to how she's always looking for ways to grow her impact with Ignite.

"Having an impact in the health care industry and finding solutions is important to me," McCracken says of her passion for Ignite on a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The second aspect of that is there are so many women in health care, and yet you don't see them in leadership roles."

Houston-based Steradian Technologies founder Asma Mirza took home third place at the annual awards. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston female-focused health tech pitch competition names top 3 startup founders

A female-focused pitch competition named its top health tech startups for the fifth year running.

Ignite Healthcare Network, a Houston nonprofit founded on the mission of supporting women in health care, hosted its annual Fire Pitch Competition on November 9 at the Ion, crowning the award recipients and doling out cash prizes.

This year, Ignite accelerated 19 female health tech founders through its program that connects entrepreneurs with mentors and industry professionals. The program concludes with a select number of finalists presenting at the Fire Pitch event.

This year, eight finalists presented at the competition for judges and an audience:

  • Suchismita Acharya, CEO of Fort Worth-based AyuVis, an immunotherapy platform that's developing treatments and prevention for inflammatory and infectious diseases, specifically of the lung, kidney, skin, eye, and sepsis.
  • Piyush Modak, co-founder, vice president of research and development of New Jersey-based EndoMedix, a technology platform developing engineered biosurgery devices that address clinical needs. The first device based on this platform is PlexiClotTM Absorbable Hemostat for brain and spinal surgery.
  • Somer Baburek, co-founder and CEO of San Antonio-based HERAbiotech, which is developing a non-surgical, molecular diagnostic test for endometriosis.
  • Melissa Bowley, founder of Flourish Care, a B2B health services platform and network addressing maternal health disparities and improve outcomes. The Boston company works with health systems and insurance companies..
  • Patty Lee, co-founder and CEO of Orbit Health, a Munich-based company that uses AI and sensor technologies to develop digital health solutions for the management of Parkinson's.
  • Tawny Hammett, chief revenue officer of New York-based Paloma Health, a patient-focused technology providing holistic approach to thyroid care all from the comfort of home.
  • Meghan Doyle, CEO and co-founder of Chicago-based Partum Health, a company focused on combining specialty reproductive care, including mental health, lactation, nutrition, physical therapy, birth doula support, and more.
  • Asma Mirza, CEO and co-founder of Houston-based Steradian Technologies, creator of the RUMI, a medical device that's providing diagnostic accessibility.

Ayse McCracken, founder and board chair of Ignite, and her partners presented several prizes and awards, including naming the winners — EndoMedix won first place, Hera Biotech secured second place, and Steradian Technologies was awarded third place.

In addition to naming the three top companies, the following prizes were doled out:

  • Memorial Hermann presented AyuVis with a certificate indicating interest in a potential partnership.
  • Golden Seeds awarded a $1,000 cash prize and three hours of mentoring to Steradian Technologies.
  • Texas Children's Hospital presented Flourish Care with a certificate indicating interest in a potential partnership.
  • Southwest-Midwest National Pediatric Device Innovation Consortium awarded Hera Biotech with $20,000.
  • Houston Methodist awarded each of the three top companies with mentorship from innovation leadership.
  • JLabs presented EndoMedix with a one-year virtual residency.
  • Donna Peters, founder of The Me Suite and mentor for Ignite, presented Hera Biotech with three coaching sessions.

Last year, Joanna Nathan, CEO of Houston-based Prana Thoracic, won the top award for her company. The company went on to raise a $3 million seed round.

Earlier this year, McCracken sat down with InnovationMap to share how she's grown the program over the past five years — and why she's so passionate about what she does.

"Having an impact in the health care industry and finding solutions is important to me," McCracken says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The second aspect of that is there are so many women in health care, and yet you don't see them in leadership roles."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Ayse McCracken of Ignite Healthcare Network, Paul Cherukuri of Rice University, and Oyetewa Oyerinde of Baylor College of Medicine. 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 health care to academia — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Ayse McCracken, founder of Ignite Healthcare Network

Ayse McCracken, founder of Ignite Healthcare Network, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how she's growing her impact on female health tech founders. Photo via LinkedIn

With a decades-long career in health care, Ayse McCracken's most recent professional chapter has been laser focused on finding, supporting, and accelerating female-founded startups in health tech with her nonprofit, Ignite Healthcare Network.

Originally founded in 2017 as a pitch competition, Ignite has evolved to become an active and integral program for female health tech entrepreneurs. Ninety-one founders have graduated from Ignite and gone on to raise over $550 million in funding for their ventures. Currently, Ignite has 19 women in its 2023 cohort, which concludes November 9 with the annual Fire Pitch competition.

"Having an impact in the health care industry and finding solutions is important to me," McCracken says of her passion for Ignite on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The second aspect of that is there are so many women in health care, and yet you don't see them in leadership roles." Read more.

Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice University

Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice University, has had a busy week. Photo via Rice.edu

If it's seemed like a lot has been happening on Rice University campus this month, it's because it has. This week, Paul Cherukuri, Rice’s vice president for innovation hosted an event announcing the university's Biotech Launch Pad, a new accelerator focused on commercializing health care innovations.

“The Biotech Launch Pad is the first in a series of Rice Moonshots that are hyper-focused on building a ‘speed and scale’ innovation ecosystem across Houston," Cherukuri says. "We at Rice are committed towards driving the Biotech Launch Pad in collaboration with our partners within the Texas Medical Center and the new Helix Park campus.” Read more.

The university also recently announced:

  • The Rice University Office of Innovation's newly established the One Small Step Grant program that will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential." Read more.
  • The opening of the Ralph S. O’Connor Building for Engineering and Science, the university's largest core campus research facility. The 250,000-square-foot building is the new home for four key research areas at Rice: advanced materials, quantum science and computing, urban research and innovation, and the energy transition. The university aims for the space to foster collaboration and innovation between the disciplines. Read more.

Oyetewa Oyerinde, leader of the Skin of Color Clinic and assistant professor of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine

The Skin of Color Clinic is devoted to the unique needs of patients of all ethnicities. Photo courtesy of BCM

All skin is created equal, but not all skin behaves the same. It’s with this in mind that Baylor Medicine Dermatology has announced the debut of its newest office.

The Skin of Color Clinic is located inside the Jamail Specialty Care Center and is devoted to the unique needs of patients of all ethnicities.

The leader of the Skin of Color Clinic is assistant professor of dermatology, Oyetewa Oyerinde. Dr. Oyerinde, a Howard University and University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine alum, completed her residency training at Harvard University, where she made it to the role of chief resident in her final year.

“I am excited to lead a clinic that addresses skin issues commonly found in underserved populations,” Oyerinde says in a news release. “I want people in Houston to know that there is a place where an expert will know how to care for their specific needs.”Read more.

Ayse McCracken, founder of Ignite Healthcare Network, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how she's growing her impact on female health tech founders. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston health tech leader to expand accelerator to continue connecting female founders

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 203

With a decades-long career in health care, Ayse McCracken's most recent professional chapter has been laser focused on finding, supporting, and accelerating female-founded startups in health tech with her nonprofit, Ignite Healthcare Network.

Originally founded in 2017 as a pitch competition, Ignite has evolved to become an active and integral program for female health tech entrepreneurs. Ninety-one founders have graduated from Ignite and gone on to raise over $550 million in funding for their ventures. Currently, Ignite has 19 women in its 2023 cohort, which concludes November 9 with the annual Fire Pitch competition.

"Having an impact in the health care industry and finding solutions is important to me," McCracken says of her passion for Ignite on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The second aspect of that is there are so many women in health care, and yet you don't see them in leadership roles."

With Ignite, McCracken is actively seeking out these potential female leaders, and giving them the support — through mentorship, programming, and networking opportunities — they need to grow their business.

Each year, McCracken explains, she's pushing the envelope with what she can accomplish with Ignite. This year, she hosted a new event in Dallas to reach female founders there, and coming soon, Ignite will launch a platform that will extend its relationship with its founders and keep them looped in with potential customers, mentors, investors, and more.

"We're in the process of building our own platform that continues to connect our ecosystem so that we're not just an episode in the journey of an entrepreneur, but that we have the ability to help them along their path," McCracken says. "That path is a rollercoaster for a variety of reasons — whether it's gender or market related — and if we help to provide a community that can provide support for companies that have promise, our goal is to, over time, triple the money that female entrepreneurs are getting."

But McCracken says she wants Ignite to do more than just find investors for her network of founders.

"Success to me isn't just getting people an early stage investment," she explains. "Success to me is getting companies that actually commercialize, get their products in the market, and that they are actually making an impact on health wellbeing, patients, and so forth."

McCracken shares more about the future of Ignite on the podcast. Listen to the interview here — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Meet the female health tech founders being accelerated by Ignite Healthcare this year. Photo courtesy of Ignite

Houston health tech accelerator names annual cohort ahead of its pitch competition

female founders

Last month, a Houston organization dedicated to supporting female founders in health care kicked off its 2023 accelerator with cohort participants from across the country.

Ignite Healthcare Network, based in Houston, is a nonprofit founded on the mission of supporting women in health care. Ignite established its 12-week accelerator program to help advance and connect female health tech founders with mentors and potential clients as their startups scale.

"We have 19 founders doing great work, and we have them matched with three to four advisors helping to mentor them," Ayse McCracken, founder and board chair of Ignite tells InnovationMap. "We also have a virtual learning program, which is new this year, and we have two sessions of those a week."

The programming is curated to tackle the health tech industry's biggest topics and provide advice for a small group of engaged startups, McCracken explains. In its fifth year now, the program has a large group of partners that are involved.

"We've had 91 companies come through our program in the last fours years," McCracken says. "They've raised over $550 million."

The cohort concludes on November 9 with the Fire Pitch Competition at the Ion, where a handful of finalists — selected by Ignite's team of mentors — will present to win the top award.

This year's cohort includes:

  • Somer Baburek, CEO and co-founder of Hera Biotech
  • Sue Carr, president and founder of CarrTech Corp
  • Suchismita Acharya, CEO, chief strategy officer, and co-founder of AyuVis
  • Asma Mirza, CEO and founder of Steradian Technologies
  • J’Vanay Santos, CEO and founder of MyLÚA Health
  • Maureen Brown, CEO and co-founder of Mosie Baby
  • Elizabeth Friedman, president and founder of Safen Medical Products
  • Meghan Doyle, CEO and co-founder of Partum Health
  • Marina Tarasova, COO and co-founder of Paloma Health
  • Melissa Bowley, CEO and founder of Flourish Care
  • Molly Hegarty, CEO and founder of Junum
  • Patty Lee, CEO and co-founder of Orbit Health
  • Piyush Modak, Vice President of R&D and co-founder of EndoMedix
  • Debbie Chen, CEO and founder of Hydrostasis
  • Rachael Grimaldi, CEO and co-founder of CardMedic
  • Rachna Dhamija, CEO of Ejenta
  • Carolyn Treviño Jenkins, CEO and co-founder of We Are Here
  • Lyn Markey, CEO and co-founder of XTremedy
  • Camille O’Malley, CTO and co-founder of XTremedy
Last year, Joanna Nathan, CEO of Houston-based Prana Thoracic, won the top award for her company.
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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

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.