This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Aziz Gilani of Mercury, Yaxin Wang of the Texas Heart Institute, and Atul Varadhachary of Fannin Innovation. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.


Aziz Gilani, managing director at Mercury

Aziz Gilani, managing director at Mercury, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

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." Read more.


Yaxin Wang, director of the Texas Heart Institute's Innovative Device & Engineering Applications Lab

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. Photo via texasheart.org

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. Read more.

Atul Varadhachary, managing director of Fannin Innovation

Atul Varadhachary also serves as CEO and president of Allterum Therapeutics. Photo via LinkedIn

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.” Read more.

Aziz Gilani, managing director at Mercury, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

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.

Here's who's making the call for this year's Houston Innovation Awards. Photos courtesy

Houston Innovation Awards names prestigious panel of judges for 2023 awards

meet the decision makers

Ten Houstonians are in the hot seat for deciding the best companies and individuals in Houston's innovation ecosystem.

InnovationMap has announced its 2023 Houston Innovation Awards judging panel, which includes startup founders, nonprofit leaders, investors, corporate innovators, and more.

The 10 selected judges will evaluate applications from the nearly 400 nominations that were submitted this year. The judges will be using their expertise to evaluate the nominees' applications, which are due to InnovationMap by midnight on October 4.

Read about this year's judges below, and don't forget to secure your tickets to the November 8 event to see who the panel selects as the winners for the annual celebration of Houston innovation.

Natara Branch, CEO of Houston Exponential

Houston Exponential was founded to amplify and support the city's innovation ecosystem, and Natara Branch has been leading this initiative since appointed as CEO last year. For the second year, HX is partnering with InnovationMap on the Houston Innovation Awards.

Born in Germany and raised all around Texas, Branch — a University of Houston alumna — previously was the first African American woman to hold a vice president position at the NFL. Based in New York, she oversaw operations in various leadership roles at the NFL for over 18 years.

Barbara J. Burger, former Trailblazer Award recipient

Barbara J. Burger, former vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, was the inaugural recipient of the Trailblazer Award at the 2021 Houston Innovation Awards, which was previously called the InnovationMap Awards.

A self-proclaimed “graduate” from Chevron, she is senior adviser to Lazard, a member of the Greentown Labs Board of Directors, adviser to Syzygy Plasmonics, Epicore Biosystems, and Sparkz Inc., and several other energy transition and philanthropic roles. Burger holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Rochester, a doctoral degree in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology, and an academic honor MBA in finance from the University of California, Berkeley.

Devin Dunn, head of the Accelerator for Health Tech at TMC Innovation

As head of the Accelerator for Health Tech at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory, Devin Dunn works hands on with startups — specifically to help them refine their business models and plan to scale — every day.

Prior to joining TMCi, Dunn was an early employee at a London-based digital health startup. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Biological Basis of Behavior and Healthcare Management from the University of Pennsylvania and received her Master’s in Public Health from the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Noah Fons, senior coordinator of regional economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership

Working within regional economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership, Noah Fons has the pulse on companies expanding to Houston. Previously, he worked at Houston Exponential, so he also understands Houston's evolving innovation ecosystem. He studied economics at Rice University.

Aziz Gilani, managing director at Mercury Fund

As managing director at Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury, Aziz Gilani focuses on investments in enterprise SaaS, Cloud, and data science startups. He's worked at the firm for over 15 years.

A Kauffman Fellows Program graduate, he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Texas and his MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Gilani also serves in advisory roles for the Mayor of Houston’s Tech and Innovation Council, Seed Accelerator Rankings, and SXSW Interactive and is an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business where he teaches a course on venture capital.

Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap

For the third year, Natalie Harms will represent InnovationMap on the annual awards judging panel as the founding editor of InnovationMap the host of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Recently named the editor of EnergyCapitalHTX, a newly launched sister site to InnovationMap focused on Houston's role within the energy transition, she reports on innovation, technology, energy transition — and their impact on the city of Houston. A Houston native, she's worked as a business journalist for almost a decade and has a degree in journalism from the University of Houston and a certificate in publishing from New York University.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi and his co-founder and sister, Tara Karimi, were honored at last year's Houston Innovation Awards as the winners of the Green Impact Business award. Cemvita Factory, their fast-growing startup, uses biotech to sustainably create materials to lower its customers carbon footprints.

Prior to launching Cemvita in 2018, Karimi held leadership roles at Weatherford and Biota Technology. He serves as a board member for CleanTX and adviser to Houston-based ComboCurve Inc.

Margarita Kelrikh, associate at Latham & Watkins

As associate in the Emerging Companies group at Latham & Watkins in Houston, Margarita Kelrikh has supported the firm's growing startup clients since her appointment last year. Prior to joining the firm, she held in-house counsel positions at a few companies, including WeWork.

She received her bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago and her law degree at Columbia School of Law.

Brad Rossacci, creative director at Accenture

Brad Rossacci is creative director at Accenture, where he's worked since 2018. He also co-founded and co-hosts the Curiosity Podcast. A Texas A&M University alumnus and self-proclaimed "rebellious optimist," Rossacci is passionate about Houston and innovation.

Maggie Segrich, co-founder of Sesh Coworking

As co-founder and CFO of inclusive coworking company, Sesh Coworking, Maggie Segrich is dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. Last year, Sesh Coworking won the Female-Founded Business category for the Houston Innovation Awards.

She serves as board member for Midtown Management District, where Sesh is located, and board chair for nonprofit, Magpies & Peacocks.

If you feel like it's hard to find venture capitalists in Houston, you wouldn't be wrong, according to this Houston investor. Photo via Getty Images

Houston investor outlines how rare VCs are in Houston — and how to find them

guest column

As a venture capitalist and former startup founder living in Houston, I get asked a lot about the best way to find and connect with a venture capitalist in Houston. My usual advice is to start with a list, and reach out to everyone on that list. But no one has a comprehensive list. In fact, VCs are such a quiet bunch that I’ve yet to meet someone who personally knows everyone on this proverbial list.

So, I got together with a couple of VC friends of mine, and we put together our own Houston venture capitalist list.

There are, by our count, 11 active venture capital funds headquartered in Houston of any size and type, and outside of corporate venture capital and angel investors, there are 30 total venture capitalists running funds.

Houston has always been quite thin on the VC fund front. I’ve jokingly introduced myself for a while as “one of the 13 venture capitalists in Houston.”

Let’s put this scale in some brutal perspective. With 7.2 million people in the Greater Houston Metro Area, the odds of finding a partner level active venture capitalist in Houston is about 1 in 240,000, if you take a most expanded definition of venture capitalist that might come down to 1 in 100,000. We’re the fifth largest metropolitan area in the country with a tremendous economic engine; there is a ton of capital in Houston, but it’s residing in things like institutional fixed income and equities, real estate, wealth management, corporate, private equity, family office, energy and infrastructure Basically, mostly everywhere but in venture capital funds for tech startups.

By comparison, there are almost as many Fortune 500 CEOs in Houston — 24, by our count — as venture capitalists and fewer venture capitalists than Fortune 1000 CEOs, of which there are 43. That means running into a VC in the checkout line at HEB is about as rare as running into the CEO of CenterPoint, ConocoPhillips, or Academy. In fact, as there are 115 cities in the Greater Houston area, you are three times more likely to be a mayor in Greater Houston Area than a partner at an investor at a VC firm, and more likely to be a college or university president. While we’re at it, you’re 400 times more likely to be a lawyer, 250 times more likely to be a CPA, and over 650 times more likely to be a medical doctor.

Our 30 venture capitalists in the Greater Houston Area are spread across 20 firms and all major venture sectors and stages. Venture capitalist is defined for this list as a full time managing director or partner-level investment professional actively running a venture capital fund with limited partners, currently investing in new venture capital deals from their fund from seed to growth stage, and residing in the Greater Houston Metro area.

To get to 31 we added in a couple of people running venture set asides for PE funds, and a number who work from Houston for funds with no office here. We excluded CVCs, as the decision making is more corporate than individual and rarely includes the committed fund and carried interest structure that defines venture capital, and excluded professionals at angel networks, accelerators, and seed funds that provide investment, but don’t manage conventional venture capital funds, as well as PE funds that do the occasional venture deal. We might be able to triple the number if we include venture capitalists at any professional level, and add in those professionals at PE and angel and seed funds, and corporate venture capital teams who are actively investing. But we’ll get to those other sources of funding in the next list.

The 11 venture capital funds headquartered in Houston are: Mercury, Energy Transition Ventures (my fund), Montrose Lane (formerly called Cottonwood), Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, Artemis, New Climate Ventures, Fitz Gate Ventures, Curate Capital, Knightsgate Ventures, Amplo Ventures,and First Bight Ventures.

Another half a dozen firms have a partner level venture capital investor here, but are headquartered elsewhere: Energy Innovation Capital, Decarbonization Partners, 1984 Ventures, Altitude Ventures, Ascension Ventures, Moneta Ventures, and MKB & Co. Two others, CSL Ventures and SCF Partners, are local private equity funds with a venture capital partner in Houston and a dedicated allocation from a PE fund.

Culling these for partner or managing director level currently in Houston, in alphabetical order by first name, LinkedIn profile and all.

We may have missed a couple of VCs hiding in plain sight, as venture capital is a pretty dynamic business.

VCs are just rare. And yes, perhaps more rare in Houston than in California. Something less than 1 in 100 VCs in the country live in Houston. Across the US there are somewhere around 1,000 to 2,000 active venture capital firms, and maybe another 1,000 to 2,000 active US based CVCs — so, plus or minus maybe at most 4,000 to 5,000 currently active partner level venture capitalists in the country excluding CVC professionals (active VCs and VC funds are really hard to count).

Perhaps in the most stunning statistic, the 7,386 elected state legislators in the US today outnumber the total number of American venture capitalists. Luckily for startup founders, the venture capitalists are more likely to return your phone call.

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Neal Dikeman is a venture capitalist and seven-time startup co-founder investing out of Energy Transition Ventures. He’s currently hosting the Venture Capital for First Time Founders Series at the Ion, where ETV is headquartered.

A new report finds that the Lone Star State isn't prime for innovation jobs — and more Houston innovation news. Photo via Getty Images

Houston hospital doles out DEI funds, investors join prestigious programs, and more local innovation news

short stories

Houston's summer has been heating up in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, Houston investors were tapped for impressive roles, a local hospital system has invested in the city's diversity and inclusion, and more.

Houston Methodist awards more than $4.6 million for 2022 DEI Grant program

Ryane Jackson, vice-president, community benefits at Houston Methodist, oversees the grant program. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist announced grants to 59 Houston-area nonprofit organizations totalling more than $4.6 million thanks to the Houston Methodist Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Grant Program. The program supports "community initiatives focused on addressing the social determinants of health that lead to health inequities within racial, ethnic and social minorities, including women, people experiencing homelessness, older adults, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and more," per a news release.

It's the second year for the DEI Grant Program, and the latest donations will support more than 100,000 people in the Houston area through 29 healthy neighborhood programs, 16 economic empowerment programs, and 17 educational empowerment programs.

“It’s incredibly encouraging to see so many local non-profit organizations working to close the health and social disparity gaps that exist among minority groups in the Houston area,” says Ryane Jackson, vice-president, community benefits at Houston Methodist, in the release. “The goal of the Houston Methodist DEI grant program is to enact meaningful change. For us, that change entails working together with local charity agencies in our collective pursuit to build a healthier Houston that reaffirms the value and worth of everyone. Entering our second year of funding, we’re pleased to support even more local organizations this year who are critical in shaping our community.”

The program has two types of grant funding — the Social Equity Grant for health equity programs targeting racial and ethnic minorities, and the DEI Grant, which provides resources for operating growing agencies serving broader minority communities.

Some examples of the grants are:

  • DEI Grant to the The Montrose Center, which empowers the LGBTQ+ community and their families to live healthier, more fulfilling lives. DEI grant funds will benefit LGBTQ+ seniors and African American seniors from Third Ward in need of affordable and affirmative housing and will enable the hiring of a case manager to support the initiative.
  • DEI Grant tp the Santa Maria Hostel, which offers a comprehensive continuum of care for women and their families including residential detoxification, substance use disorder treatment for women, and emergency and transitional housing. DEI Grant funding will support the Recovery Support Services Program that assists formerly incarcerated women with housing and economic stability through salary support for Peer Recovery Coaches. This agency is the only recovery agency that allows women to keep their children with them while going through the program.
  • Social Equity Grant to Boat People SOS - Houston, a nonprofit social and legal services provider whose purpose is to empower, organize, and equip immigrant communities in their pursuit of liberty and dignity. The Houston Methodist Social Equity grant funding will support their senior services program designed to address social support needs and provide resources to Vietnamese seniors.

2 Mercury investors named to prestigious programs

Samantha Lewis and Aziz Gilani of Mercury have each received exciting appointments. Photos via Mercury

Houston-based venture capital firm has two employees to celebrate. Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury, was announced as a member of the Class 27 of the Kauffman Fellows Program, a group of global innovation investors, just after Aziz Gilani, managing director at the firm, was appointed to the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a Federal advisory committee that advises the United States Secretary of Commerce.

For Lewis, the appointment enrolls her in the two-year program, which is described as "a United Nations of venture investing," in a news release. She joins a network of 765 fellows — including 59 in the current cohort — spanning six continents and representing over 670 VC firms around the globe.

At NACIE, Gilani was one of 32 leaders appointed by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo last month. The group, according to a news release, will be tasked with "developing a National Entrepreneurship Strategy that strengthens America’s ability to compete and win as the world’s leading startup nation and as the world’s leading innovator in critical emerging technologies."

Texas ranks as middle of the pack when it comes to innovative states

Texas ranks in the lower half of the nation when it comes to innovation jobs. Chart via Smartest Dollar

The Lone Star State was named the 30th most innovative state, according to a new report from Smartest Dollar. The report evaluated data from 350 metros and all 50 states and sought to identify the locations with the most innovative workers. Researchers calculated a composite innovation index for each location and ranked states accordingly.

Here is a summary of the data for Texas, according to the report:

  • Composite innovation index: 59.30
  • Share of workers in the most innovative jobs: 2.6 percent
  • Total workers in the most innovative jobs: 322,910
  • Average annual wage for all workers: $54,230
  • Average annual wage for workers in the most innovative jobs: $77,098

Here are the statistics for the entire United States:

  • Composite innovation index: 59.53
  • Share of workers in the most innovative jobs: 3.1 percent
  • Total workers in the most innovative jobs: 4,428,790
  • Average annual wage for all workers: $58,260
  • Average annual wage for workers in the most innovative jobs: $86,562

Applications are open for pitch competition

A new pitch competition is looking for finalists. Photo via Getty Images

Applications are now open for the Black Girl Ventures x Omaze Houston pitch competition. The deadline to submit is July 1.

This fall, seven finalists will pitch their businesses to a panel of judges, and the first place winner will win $10,000. Second and third place winners will receive $6,000 and $2,000, respectively. Capital One will match funds, effectively doubling the prize money for the top three finalists.

Eligibility includes Black and Brown woman-identifying founders with revenue-generating (under $1 million) businesses. Founders can submit their applications online. Finalists will be notified on July 18.

Black Girl Ventures has been active in Houston since 2020. According to the organization, the region has six Change Agents, or fellows, who work to strengthen and expand the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Houston startup joins national 5G accelerator cohort

Houston startup joins a cohort of companies changing the future of 5G. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston company has been named to a new 5G-focused accelerator program. The gBETA 5G Technology Spring 2022 cohort includes Houston-based Ohana. Using advertising revenue, the company brings free access to information and connectivity to the world and is planning to roll out a 5G smartphone and data plan free to users across the globe later this year.

gBETA, which has an industry agnostic cohort ongoing in Houston, also has this 5G-focuset version that follows a similar structure. The five companies will go through the free, seven-week accelerator — that kicked off May 5 — and receive intensive and individualized coaching and access to gener8tor’s national network of mentors, customers, corporate partners, and investors.

The program will culminate with the gener8tor Showcase Day in the fall, which will highlight each of the five companies.

“We’re so fortunate to have such a diverse set of founders from across the country, with expertise across the internet technology and communications continuum,” says Doug Applegate, gBETA director for the 5G Technology program. “They highlight the capabilities and possibilities of what 5G Technology can bring to the world, and we’re excited to see how the companies grow.”

The other companies include Chicago-based Socian Technologies, Fishers, Indiana-based Qumulex Boston-based Mentore, and Dallas-based Taubyte.

This week's innovators to know are Sean Guerre of Innovate Energy, Carolyn Rodz of Hello Alice, and Aziz Gilani of Mercury Fund. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

From quickly making face masks to preparing meals for hospital workers, Houstonians everywhere are finding the best way for them to give back. For these three innovators to know this week, their way of giving back is helping startups navigate this unprecedented time.

Sean Guerre, managing director of Innovate Energy

Photo courtesy of Innovate Energy

The oil and gas industry is going through an unprecedented time. Never before have energy companies had to deal with such a large discrepancy between supply and demand, and COVID-19 closures is just the cherry on top. A victim of the situation is going to be early-stage energy tech startups. However, Guerre says he is seeing interest in startups that specialize in a specific type of technology.

"We're seeing a huge interest in autonomous, unmanned solutions," Guerre says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Anything in that remote, autonomous area that allows people to continue to do inspections, mapping, surveying, and all kinds of work that don't involve more people being involved in the process — we're seeing a real acceleration there."

Click here to read more.

Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Hello Alice

Courtesy of Hello Alice

While a bunch of companies are left idle with not much to do during the COVID-19-caused shutdown, Carolyn Rodz, CEO and co-founder of Houston-based Hello Alice, has been busier than ever. Her company, which provides digital resources for startups and small businesses, has kicked their operations into high gear.

Rodz and her team created a COVID-19 Business Center free for entrepreneurs to use, as well as announced emergency grants to businesses affected by COVID-19.

Click here to read more.

Aziz Gilani, managing director of Mercury Fund

Photo courtesy of Mercury Fund

The repercussions of the pandemic has forced Aziz Gilani to become an expert in the CARES Act in order to help Mercury Fund's portfolio companies, but Gilani has been more than willing to share his newfound expertise. He joined Rodz on a virtual panel hosted by Houston Exponential and the duo offered pertinent advice for Houston startups — especially in light of the lack of clarity in the quickly passed legislature.

"One of the challenges of the program is that it is being administered by the Small Business Administration, which traditionally hasn't worked with venture-backed and angel-backed companies," Gilani says, adding that now is the time to document everything and involve a lawyer to help you mitigate the act's details.

Click here to read more.

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Education equity-focused nonprofit taps into robotics, AI to better serve Houston children

the future is bright

Generally, when children are under the age of five, educators believe that they are best suited for and interested in learning, because those are the years in which there is the strongest opportunity to build a broad and solid foundation for lifelong literacy and well-being.

That sentiment is deeply held by Collaborative for Children, the Houston-based nonprofit organization with the mission to meaningfully improve the quality of early childhood education and provide access to cutting-edge technology through its Centers of Excellence to all children, especially those in low-income and marginalized communities.

“The reason the organization was started about 40 years ago is that a group of philanthropists in the greater Houston area suggested that this was so important because 90 percent of the brain develops or grows in the time frame between ages zero to five years of age,” Melanie Johnson, president and CEO of Collaborative for Children, tells InnovationMap.

“And if we were losing children and not preparing them by third grade to be literate, and then subsequently losing them after that for high dropout rates and achievement gaps between poor and affluent children, that this would be the perfect place to start," she continues. "And so, they put the collaborative, the emphasis, and finances collaborative of every, most every early education effort around this region.”

Collaborative for Children’s work in the community is centered around making sure that there is educational equity for all children, regardless of financial status, and providing access to technologies in meaningful ways.

“Ultimately, we want to bridge the digital divide early on so that when children start off their academic journey, they're starting off equipped with the skills to be successful there on,” says Johnson.

Most recently, the institution has focused on utilizing social-emotional learning robots and coding tech toys like the Pepper — the world’s first social humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions — and NAO, which resembles human being and stimulates, robots to enhance learning in the classrooms of its Centers of Excellence.

“Technology enhances the learning experience in the Centers of Excellence in ways that a teacher might not be able to,” says Johnson. “Artificial intelligence is used in gamification to allow a child to play and learn while playing.”

For Collaborative for Children, gamification involves transforming typical academic components into gaming themes.

“While playing, the AI gauges the level of skills that they’ve been able to enter into that system and respond with even more challenging tasks or tasks that are still lateral so that they can continue to repeat that skill,” says Johnson.

The socio-emotional learning robots are indeed fascinating, but how does the nonprofit reach these children, and their parents, who might be skeptical of technology?

Ultimately, through the teachers. They draw them in via the technology. If teachers are excited, they act as a conductor of that energy to their students, making their innovative lessons well, electric.

That resonates with most all children, but especially with those diagnosed with autism.

“Robotics like NAO are great for children on the autism spectrum because they are emotionally sensitive and emotionally intelligent,” says Johnson. “They are low sensory, so as NAO runs around the classroom, it can literally have individual and unique conversations with each child based on facial recognition. But most importantly for me, is that this particular robot is able to evaluate children without statistical bias that a teacher might have.

“A teacher might think that because a child confuses the letter D and B, which are basically shaped the same in opposite directions, that they're not learning," she continues. "And the robot will have no prior knowledge in terms of, is this child the better child, or have they been learning throughout the year? The answers are accurate or inaccurate. So, they remove statistical bias when assessing children in the classroom.”

The misconception about teaching technologies is that it’s about screen time. According to Johnson, it’s not. It’s more about interacting with technology.

“We’ve added, you know, all kinds of modern-day technology so that this world that we're preparing these children for 80 percent of the jobs we don't even know will exist when they are adults,” says Johnson. “So, we're just trying to make sure that there is no divide in terms of 21st century skills and 21st century preparation.”

Building Blocks Ep. 12youtu.be

Collaborative for Children has so many facets to assist children with their early development, but there are inherent challenges when attempting to reach their target audience in low-income and marginalized communities that the organization counters with programs like the Collab Lab, which is a mobile classroom that brings critical, future-focused early childhood education directly to the community at no cost.

Designed to be convenient for families, Collab Lab connects parents and their youngest children with experts, educators, resources, and proven programs whose goal is to make sure that kids have the skills essential to learning from the moment they walk into kindergarten for the first time.

“There are a myriad of challenges in these communities that we serve, specifically with technology,” says Johnson. “When children enter first grade, and especially second grade, they're given notepads, basically, digital notepads, because it's no good in pre-K oftentimes, but it is very helpful for children who will never have access or have limited access to iPads and things of that nature.

“So while we don't want them to be babysat by screen time and have social media impacting their self-image and self-worth, we definitely want them to have appropriate doses and appropriate uses of technology in the early education, so that those barriers that their parents face with limited means, that these children can go to first grade and into the robotics class and be able to be evaluated and assessed on the digital notepads that are required nowadays,” she continues.

While technology is very important, Collaborative for Children also focuses on the critical social and emotional skills children need as they develop and the all too important relationship between children and their parents and teachers.

“Theory leads our work,” says Johnson. “It's all focused on fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social emotional, can a child build rapport with their teacher and with the students around them. Those things are paramount and will never change.

“What we use technology to do is enhance and remove biases from teacher-pupil interaction, but also to bridge any kind of divide in terms of 21st century skills. And in addition to that, we engage the families. So families who might not know about hydro-fueled cars in those communities that we serve will be able to be exposed to those concepts, as well through our group connections or parent partnerships.”

Ultimately, the last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world.

“At Collaborative for Children,” adds Johnson. “We are continuously pushing the envelope at our Centers for Excellence so that the children that we serve will always be on the cutting edge.

The last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world. Photo courtesy of Collaborative for Children

Houston med school develops revolutionary mRNA vaccine for elephants

zoology biology

An innovative team from Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital has worked with the Houston Zoo to develop a first-of-its-kind treatment for elephants, which has been administered to its first patient.

Tess, the beloved, 40-year-old matriarch of the Houston Zoo’s elephant herd, is recovering well after receiving the first-ever mRNA vaccine against elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) 1A on Tuesday, June 18. The veterinary staff at the Houston Zoo will monitor Tess in the coming weeks to check her reaction and the efficacy of the vaccine.

EEHV 1A is a deadly infection for Asian Elephants. While generally benign in African Elephants, Asian Elephants can develop fatal hemorrhages. The fatality rate is a whopping 80 percent, making it one of the most serous threats to elephant populations outside of humans.

Anti-viral drugs have some effect on the disease, but two-thirds show no improvement. This has led to a search for a vaccine. For 15 years, the Houston Zoo and Dr. Paul Ling at Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Virology and Microbiology have partnered to develop the drug. They have been helped by worldwide research from zoos and animal specialists, as well as graduate student Jessica Watts and Dr. Jeroen Pollet at Houston's Texas Children’s Hospital. The research has been funded by private donations, research partnerships, and grants.

Before being inoculated, the mRNA vaccine was exhaustively tested, with the dosage being extrapolated from data involving horses.

Houston Zoo veterinarians will periodically test Tess to see if she is developing the appropriate antibodies. If she is and there are no adverse reactions, the next step will be to administer the vaccine to the rest of the Houston herd. Many of these are Tess’s own children (Tucker, Tupelo, Tilly, and Teddy) and grandchildren (Winnie).

Should the vaccine prove effective, the doses will be made available worldwide to zoos and private elephant sanctuaries. It is likely to have a significant benefit on protecting and preserving the Asian Elephant population. As of January, there are fewer than 50,000 of the animas left in the wild. They are currently listed as endangered, and breeding programs and research done through the Houston Zoo are essential to keeping the animals from going extinct.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

New study says Houston is best city to grow business

Report

The Bayou City has again received recognition as a top hub for business.

According to a new study by business revenue experts The RevOps Team, Houston is one of the cities in the US with 10 or more companies listed in the S&P 500, and has been named as the number one city with the fastest growing businesses in the U.S. Houston scored the highest Average Business Growth (ABG) at 26.7 percent. The business experts divided the data from the S&P 500 Index to see what businesses had the highest share-price growth in the last year.

Out of the 28 states and the cities with 10 or more businesses listed in the S&P 500, Houston was No. 1t for growing businesses with Atlanta, in second place with 15 companies listed and reaching an ABG of 24.2 percent. Two cities in Texas ranked in the top five with Dallas taking third place at 14.9 percent.

Texas ranked fifth place overall in the top five states for business growth with high-performing businesses like Vistra. Vistra was the company with the highest growth in Texas at 277.68 percent, followed by NRG Energy (NRG) with 170.43 percent and Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) at 69.13 percent.

“You need to be ready to both leverage opportunity and adapt to challenges,” Kerri Linsenbigler of RevOps Team said in a news release. “Growing a business wherever you are in the U.S. is not for the faint-hearted, and business owners in Texas will be proud that they have ranked highly in the top five.”

Earlier this month, over a dozen Houston-based companies madeU.S. News and World Report's collection of the "Best Companies to Work For" in 2024-2025.

In December, the city was ranked among the 25 best metropolitan areas to start a small business in a report by personal finance website The Credit Review placed Houston in the No. 22 spot.