For the third year, Rice University has tapped 10 Rice Innovation Fellows working in engineering and materials science fields to support. Photo via rice.edu

Rice University has announced its latest cohort of fellows who aim to translate research into real-world startups.

The 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows is the third of its kind since the university's Office of Innovation and The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (or Lilie) launched the program in 2022. The group includes 10 Ph.D. and postdoctoral students working in engineering and materials science fields.

The program provides personalized mentorship and up to $20,000 equity-free funding.

According to Lilie, the 10 members of the 2024 cohort are:

  • Barclay Jumet, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of mechanical engineering, working under Dan Preston and specializing in mechanics, thermal systems and wearable technologies. InnovationMap covered his recent technology here.
  • Tianshu Zhai, a Ph.D. student studying materials science specializing in hexagonal boron nitride-based thermal interface materials
  • Zachary Kingston, a postdoctoral research associate and lab manager for the Kavraki Lab in the Computer Science department at Rice, working under the direction of Dr. Lydia Kavraki, a pioneer in the field of robot motion planning. Kingston is developing a novel approach to high-performance, low-cost robot motion planning with Wil Thomason.
  • Soobin Cho, a Ph.D. student and co-founder of Duromem, which created the Dual-Role Electrically Conductive Membrane to improve existing water treatment systems
  • Sara Abouelniaj, a Ph.D. candidate in Material Science and Nanoengineering and founder of Graphene Grids LLC, which is exploring opportunities to diversify its range of grid types services offered
  • Alisha Menon, is founding a medical device startup that's developing wireless, AI-enabled patient monitoring devices for babies in the NICU. Her work is being done in collaboration with the Texas Medical Center and Rice, with support from NSF and the Southwest Pediatric Device Consortium.
  • Wil Thomason, a CRA Computing Innovation postdoctoral fellow in the Kavraki Lab at Rice University who is developing low-cost robot motion planning with Kingston
  • Jeremy Daum, a Ph.D. candidate at Rice in the Materials Science department working on a a novel production method to create photocatalysts
  • Jonathan Montes, a Ph.D. candidate in Bioengineering focused on combating neurodegenerative diseases with highly selective neuromodulation
  • Andrew (AJ) Walters, a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering working in the labs of Dr. Caleb Bashor (Rice) and Dr. Scott Olson (UTHealth Houston McGovern Medical School) who's building an accessible allogeneic cell therapy to treat inflammation disorders and potentially cancer. He was awarded a three-year NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in 2022.

Over the last three years, Innovation Fellows have brought in more than $6 million in funding for their ventures, according to Rice.

Last year, the cohort of 10 included doctoral and postdoctoral students working in fields from bioengineering and chemistry to civil and environmental engineering.

Late last year, Lilie also announced its new entrepreneurship council known as Lilie’s Leadership Council. The group is made up of 11 successful business leaders with ties to Houston from the likes of co-founder Frank Liu to former Houston Mayor Annise Parker and several other CEOs and board members of successful companies. The council members agreed to donate time and money to the university’s entrepreneurship programs.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Michelle Stansbury of Houston Methodist, Barclay Jumet of Rice University, and Collin McLelland of Digital Wildcatters. 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 energy tech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist

Michelle Stansbury joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist has a small group of leaders — the Digital Innovation Obsessed People, or DIOP — that lead external and internal innovation efforts, from pilots to implementation. Michelle Stansbury is one of those leaders. As vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist, she oversees the system's IT department and serves as a leader within its innovation efforts. This includes the Center for Innovation Technology Hub — which opened in 2020 in the Texas Medical Center location and opened its Ion outpost last week.

Stansbury explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast how effective this distribution of innovation responsibilities has been for Houston Methodist. With everyone having a seat at the table — operations knows the biggest problems that need solutions, IT knows how to deploy technology, etc. — implementation of new innovations has been sped up.

"If we partner together, we should be able to succeed fast or fail fast," she says on the show. "We've been able to find a solution, pilot it, and, if it works well, roll it out at a speed that most other organizations have not been able to do. It's been highly successful for us." Read more.

Barclay Jumet, researcher at Rice University

A team at Rice University is designing wearable technology that can be used for navigation for users with visual and auditory impairments. Photo by Brandon Martin/Rice University

A group of Rice researchers have tapped into the sense of touch to improve how wearable technology can communicate with its user.

Barclay Jumet, a mechanical engineering PhD student at Rice working in the labs of Daniel Preston and Marcia O’Malley, published the findings in the August issue of “Device.” The study outlines the group's new system of haptic accessories that rely heavily on fluidic control over electrical inputs to signal or simulate touch to a wearer.

“In the future, this technology could be directly integrated with navigational systems, so that the very textiles making up one’s clothing can tell users which way to go without taxing their already overloaded visual and auditory senses—for instance by needing to consult a map or listen to a virtual assistant,” Jumet said in a release from Rice. Read more.

Collin McLelland, co-founder and CEO of Digital Wildcatters

This Houston-based media company launched a networking platform to help solve the energy crisis. Photo courtesy

Houston-based media organization Digital Wildcatters has officially launched the beta program of their networking app to help bridge the hiring gap in the energy industry. By providing a platform for individuals to get their questions answered by experts and a space for companies seeking qualified talent, Collide is structured to ignite the next generation of energy innovators.

Collin McLelland, co-founder and CEO of Digital Wildcatters, says he aims to expand their professional community through this networking platform. Rather than being a transition away from Digital Wildcatters’ roots as a digital media organization McLelland explains Collide is an integration of the community they have built through podcasts and events into an interactive platform.

“If you look at what we’ve done historically with Digital Wildcatters, we’ve built an extremely engaged community of energy professionals — it’s a next generation community, very young forward thinking professionals that are working towards solving the world’s energy crisis,” McLelland shares. Read more.

A team at Rice University is designing wearable technology that can be used for navigation for users with visual and auditory impairments. Photo by Brandon Martin/Rice University

Rice team develops complex wearables that can navigate users through Houston

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A group of Rice researchers have tapped into the sense of touch to improve how wearable technology can communicate with its user.

Barclay Jumet, a mechanical engineering PhD student at Rice working in the labs of Daniel Preston and Marcia O’Malley, published the findings in the August issue of “Device.” The study outlines the group's new system of haptic accessories that rely heavily on fluidic control over electrical inputs to signal or simulate touch to a wearer. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Rice University Academy of Fellows, and the Gates Millennium Scholars Program.

The accessories include a belt and textile sleeves, which deliver haptic cues like vibration, tapping and squeezing through pressure generated by a lightweight carbon dioxide tank attached to the belt. The sleeve contains up to six quarter-sized pouches that inflate with varying force and frequency, depending on what is being communicated to the wearer.

Marcia O'Malley (from left), Barclay Jumet and Daniel Preston developed a wearable textile device that can deliver complex haptic cues in real time to users on the go. Photo by Brandon Martin/Rice University

The team says the wearables have uses for those with visual and auditory impairments and offer a slimmed-down design compared to other bulky complex haptic wearables. The wearables are also washable and repairable, which gives them more everyday uses.

To test the system's usability, the team guided a user on a mile-long route through Houston, signaling haptic cues for forward, backward, left or right through the devices.

“In the future, this technology could be directly integrated with navigational systems, so that the very textiles making up one’s clothing can tell users which way to go without taxing their already overloaded visual and auditory senses—for instance by needing to consult a map or listen to a virtual assistant,” Jumet said in a release from Rice.

O’Malley, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said the system could also work in tandem with Cochlear implants and make lip-reading easier for users in noisy environments by directing users to sources of sound.

Jumet also sees uses outside of the medical space.

“Instead of a smart watch with simple vibrational cues, we can now envision a ‘smart shirt’ that gives the sensation of a stroking hand or a soft tap on the torso or arm,” he said in the release. “Movies, games and other forms of entertainment could now incorporate the sense of touch, and virtual reality can be more comfortable for longer periods of time.”


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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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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

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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.