From a locally sourced meal service company to stem cell research and a balance measuring device, this week's innovators are ones to know in the health industry. Courtesy photos

More and more Americans are focusing on their health, from eating right to experimenting with new treatments or devices. These three Houston innovators are riding the coattails of this health-focused movement with their startups. With advances in technology and the movement only growing faster and faster, you'd better keep your eye on these Houston innovators.

Marla Murphy, founder of The Blonde Pantry

Courtesy of The Blonde Pantry

Marla Murphy didn't feel like she was doing enough to promote health and wellness with her platform, The Blonde Pantry. So, she expanded it to incorporate locally sourced produce and easy-to-make recipes she gets ready every weekend to deliver to her members by Monday.

"It's not about selling meals and moving on, I want this to be a lifestyle company that is really founded and has deep roots in Houston," says Murphy in a InnovationMap story.

Murphy tells InnovationMap that in the next year she hopes to expand into the retail space and find a bigger commercial kitchen to function as their own. She also hopes to partner with companies outside of food and continue to nourish lives in someway.

David Eller, chairman, co-founder and CEO of Celltex

Courtesy of Celltex

Stem cell treatment is personal to David Eller, chairman, co-founder and CEO of Celltex. Eller had the treatment in hopes of resolving pain from a college football injury.

"I would go to work and put four to six Advil in my pocket," Eller says in an InnovationMap story about Celltex's technology. Within months, he stopped needing those pills.

Houston-based Celltex tracks its progress with its patients. Eighty-three percent of multiple sclerosis patients have reported improvement of symptoms specific to their disease, as have 73 percent of Parkinson's sufferers. But the staggering fact is that 100 percent of 58 respondents with rheumatoid arthritis say they have benefited.

Katharine Forth, founder and CEO of Zibrio

Courtesy of Zibrio

Katharine Forth has used a technology she developed with her colleague at NASA to measure balance in astronauts to create a device that any terrestrial human can now use from the comfort of their own homes.

"The machines typically used for balance measurement can be as large as a telephone booth, so we invented a new way to measure postural control using a much smaller mechanism that fit inside a moon boot," Forth says in an InnovationMap article about Zibrio, The Balance Company. Zibrio, The Balance Company.

Zibrio is now a finalist for the 2019 SXSW Pitch in the health and wearables category and will take its balance technology to the stage in March.

Balancing is important throughout your life, and Zibrio has the tools and tips for you to use to stay centered. Pexels

Houston medical devices company using NASA balancing technology prepares for commercial launch

From space to marketplace

In her postdoctoral work at NASA, Katharine Forth and her colleague were tasked with finding a new way to track the balance of astronauts on the moon.

"The machines typically used for balance measurement can be as large as a telephone booth, so we invented a new way to measure postural control using a much smaller mechanism that fit inside a moon boot," Forth says.

She didn't know it at the time, but working on this technology would lead her to create Zibrio, The Balance Company with her colleague, Erez Lieberman Aiden.

Zibrio is a health company that aims to be the gold standard of measuring balance. The Zibrio scale calculates users' weight like a typical scale and rates their balance on scale of 1 to 10.

The scale gathers data from your weight, your postural control, your muscles and other factors to calculate the rating. Andrea Case-Rogers, chief experience officer at Zibrio, describes a perfect rating of 10 as elusive for most, or "Simone Biles on a good day."

After seeing their rating, users can identify any problems and start taking steps to improve their balance. Zibrio will also come with a smartphone app, so users can track their balance, any fluctuations and progress over a long-term period.

By using the scale and app together, users can gain a greater understand of what in their lifestyle is helping versus hurting their balance.

From space to the marketplace
After co-founding Zibrio together in 2015, Forth and Aiden have taken the company a long way since then.

Zibrio is a finalist for the 2019 SXSW Pitch in the health and wearables category. In 2015, the company was part of the Texas Medical Center's TMCx medical devices cohort. Both programs highlight the innovative technology being used as well as the big impact that Zibrio could have for both consumers and clinicians.

Zibrio already has conducted clinical trials all over Houston by working with Memorial Hermann and UT Physicians, and the company is currently focused on fundraising. Forth and her team of five will use these funds to get the scale and smartphone app consumer-ready and launched.

The commercial launch for both the scale and app is planned for later this year.

"We're currently finalizing the design with the manufacturer, so they can make the scale available commercially," Forth says. "Since 2015, we've been fundraising, building prototype scales and conducting clinical trials."

Finding balance at any age
A common misconception is that our balance deteriorates in older age. In actuality, a lifetime of behavior and activity affects our balance in later years. Falls are the leading cause of accidental death and unexpected injuries in older adults.

"If you have been mostly sedentary your whole life, by the time you hit your later years, your lower limb strength is weakened affecting your ability to move." Forth says, "so many factors feed into your balance, which means there are so many things that can be done to lower your fall risk."

When Forth and her team ran a balance program at a senior living facility, they halved the number of falls in two years. By creating an awareness of balance, they were able to drive changed behaviors in the seniors, in turn, improving their balance.

According to Case-Rogers, Zibrio is bringing the balance conversation to people in 60s and 70s who want to keep their lifestyle and not deal with mobility and health issues later. They want to show investors that there is a market for wellness product like Zibrio among older people.

Zibrio will sponsor the National Senior Games, the largest multi-sport competition for seniors in the world, this summer in Albuquerque. With over 10,000 athletes, Forth and her team are excited to introduce Zibrio to a larger audience.

Forth firmly believes balance measurements should be a part of routine wellness exams and home self-monitoring, especially in later years.

"When athletes stand on a scale and see their number, it's like a light goes on in their heads and they realize how important balance is," says Forth. "That's what I love, we have this great product that opens up the conversation about and is really helping people in middle age and beyond."

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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.