3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's innovators to know includes Kenneth Liao of Baylor St. Luke's, Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential, and Nick Cardwell of McCord. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from robotics in health care to smart city technology — all making headlines in Houston this week.

Kenneth Liao, chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center,

Houston cardiac surgeon outpaces much of the country in game-changing robotics

Dr. Kenneth Liao, chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, is one of around 50 surgeons in the country considered experts of this new surgery robotics tool. Photo courtesy of Baylor St. Luke's

Dr. Kenneth Liao is the only cardiatric surgeon in Houston — and one of only around 50 in the world — who uses a specific robot to conduct heart surgeries. The robot, known as the da Vinci, was first designed to assist in battlefield procedures.

Now on its fourth generation, the robot allows surgeons like Liao to treat heart diseases and conditions that typically would require open heart surgery through a one-to-two inch incision near the ribs. In many surgeries, it also allows surgeons to keep a patient's heart beating, lowering the risk of stroke.

"It's a totally game changing component to conventional surgery," Liao says. Read more.

Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at Houston Exponential 

Serafina Lalany joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the Listies. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Houston tech companies deserve a shoutout, and, after mulling it over for quite a while, Serafina Lalany and her team at Houston Exponential are making it happen with The Listies, a new awards program.

"The idea for The Listies has been in the back of our minds for a long time," says Lalany, chief of staff at HX, on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There has always been a need in the ecosystem to celebrate the wins and vibrant culture we have here. This is an opportunity to pay homage to that."

The nomination deadline has been extended for the awards. Nominate a worthy startup, person, investor or corporate by Friday, November 6. Click here to submit. And, click here to stream the episode and read more.

Nick Cardwell, vice president of digital innovation at McCord

A new executive hire for McCord is going to focus on bringing smart city technology to Generation Park. Rendering courtesy of McCord

At 4,200 acres, the Generation Park master-planned development is evolving into its own ecosystem of sorts — one that has a huge opportunity for tech and smart city initiatives. Houston-based real estate developer, McCord, has hired Nick Cardwell as vice president of digital innovation. In the newly created role, Cardwell will be tasked with bringing data-driven solutions, digital transformation, and other smart city innovation to Generation Park.

"McCord's vision for Generation Park is the future of commercial development, pushing digital innovation into the forefront and leveraging cutting-edge technologies throughout their portfolio. I am beyond thrilled to join the McCord team and help make that vision a reality," says Cardwell, in the release. "Through the use of experiences, data, and collaborations, we will accelerate learnings and, in turn, advance resources that will truly improve people's lives." Read more.

Dr. Kenneth Liao, chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, is one of around 50 surgeons in the country considered experts of this new surgery robotics tool. Photo courtesy of Baylor St. Luke's

Houston cardiac surgeon outpaces much of the country in game-changing robotics

matters of the heart

Dr. Kenneth Liao is pioneering a less invasive form of heart surgery at a time when distanced medicine has become more important than ever with the help of six team members and one robot.

As the chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, Liao has performed 116 robotic cardiac surgeries since coming on board in 2019 (as of press time). With Liao at the helm, Baylor St. Luke's has become a top cardiac robotics program in the country and is the only hospital in Houston to practice this highly-specialized form of surgery.

Liao's four-armed robot friend is known as the da Vinci robotic system and was first designed to assist in battlefield procedures. Now on its fourth generation, the robot allows surgeons like Liao to treat heart diseases and conditions that typically would require open heart surgery through a one-to-two inch incision near the ribs. In many surgeries, it also allows surgeons to keep a patient's heart beating, lowering the risk of stroke.

"It's a totally game changing component to conventional surgery," Liao says, who's one of about 50 surgeons in the country with his level of command over the tool.

Once inside, the da Vinci robot uses tiny instruments to perform surgical practices from suturing to cutting to tying a knot all within the rigid chest cage, which in a typical open heart surgery would have to be broken to perform such tasks.

The surgeon, who's seated about 10 feet away from the patient, controls the tools through a joystick connected to a computer console that shows an enhanced 3D view of the patient's chest. Liao says the screen provides a better visual of the heart than if he was seeing it with his own eyes, as it magnifies the field of surgery tenfold. This method also gives surgeons a better view of areas of the heart that they cannot easily see from above during traditional procedures.

The da Vinci can be used for bypass, grafting, pacemaker, and valve repair surgeries, and it has been proven to result in less blood loss and a faster, less painful recovery. Similar technology has also been adopted for prostate and gynecological surgeries. "It gives you the advantage of minimizing the trauma," Liao says.

And though the da Vinci was developed years before the pandemic, it puts patients at a lower risk of exposure to any outside contaminants, Liao adds, as the robot alone is interfacing with the patient through a small port, compared to doctors, nurses, and assistants hovering over an open chest cavity.

"Technology will theoretically reduce a patient's exposure to COVID in the operation room," he says. "I think that's common sense."

Liao was an early adopter of robotics, when the technology was much less user friendly. He performed the first robotic heart surgery in the state of Minnesota in 2003 and has worked with the developers of the da Vinci ever since to help improve the product after many other surgeons dismissed it.

He says today there is a renewed interest in the highly technical process and he believes it will become an emphasis for younger surgeons.

"This generation of surgeons are young and they are very indebted to computer technology and games. For them looking at screens and controlling the hand joystick control is much more familiar than for the older generation that was trained 20 years ago." he says.

The incredible technology helps, too. "A lot of times, as surgeons, we train in the old way. It's very difficult to change the systems," he says. "You need a major technology revolution to change the teaching and training."

Houston Methodist stood out yet again on an annual best hospitals report, but several other Houston institutions were recognized as well. Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

New report recognizes best hospitals in Houston

better than all the rest

Hospitals across Houston were ranked by their patient care, patient safety, outcomes, nursing, advanced technology and reputation in an annual report that identifies the top medical facilities in the country.

U.S. News & World Report released its 31st annual best hospital rankings this week, which included both adult and children's hospital tracks across several categories. The report released both overall and local rankings after evaluating over 4,500 medical centers nationwide in 16 specialties, and 134 hospitals were ranked in at least one specialty.

For the ninth year in a row, the top hospital in Houston and Texas, according to the report, is Houston Methodist, which ranked at No. 20 nationally and made the report's Honor Roll.

"Our U.S. News rankings are especially meaningful right now as this has been an exceptionally difficult time for our health care workers," says Marc Boom, M.D., president and CEO of Houston Methodist, in a news release. "We have always served our community by providing exceptional care — during the COVID-19 pandemic and before. It's a true testament to our commitment to being unparalleled."

Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital tied for No. 4 in Houston and No. 6 (three-way tie) in Texas. Additionally, the hospital was recognized on the top lists for 11 specialties:

  • No. 12 for cardiology/heart surgery
  • No. 13 for orthopedics
  • No. 14 for gastroenterology/GI surgery
  • No. 17 for cancer
  • No. 19 (tie) for nephrology
  • No. 20 for pulmonology and lung surgery
  • No. 23 for neurology/neurosurgery
  • No. 26 for geriatrics
  • No. 26 (tie) for gynecology
  • No. 28 for diabetes and endocrinology
  • No. 49 for ear, nose and throat

The second-best hospital in Houston on this year's ranking was Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, which was also named the No. 3 hospital in the state.

"At Baylor St. Luke's, we are transforming the way we deliver care for our patients through groundbreaking technologies and a multidisciplinary approach that allows us to give the best possible care to patients and their families," says Doug Lawson, CEO of St. Luke's Health, in a news release. "I praise our dedicated staff and physicians for helping us achieve this recognition."

Baylor St. Luke's also made an appearance across five specialties:

  • No. 17 for cardiology/heart surgery
  • No. 21 for gastroenterology/GI surgery
  • No. 21 for neurology/neurosurgery
  • No. 27 for cancer
  • No. 47 for geriatrics

"This is a great report that confirms the efforts of our partnership at Baylor St. Luke's and our affiliated hospitals to provide unsurpassed care to patients, conduct research that will change lives and train the next generation of physicians", says Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO, and executive dean at Baylor College of Medicine. "Baylor St. Luke's high ranking in Texas is in parallel with Baylor College of Medicine being the highest ranked medical school in Texas. Together, we are an outstanding academic medical center and learning health system."

Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center came in No. 3 in Houston and No. 5 in Texas. The hospital ranked in one adult specialty and two children's specialties.

  • No. 43 for ear, nose and throat (adult)
  • No. 22 for cardiology/heart surgery (pediatric)
  • No. 31 for neurology/neurosurgery (pediatric)

On the children's hospital track, Houston's Texas Children's Hospital ranked as No. 4 nationally and was recognized in all 10 pediatric specialties, which included:

  • No. 1 for pediatric cardiology/heart surgery
  • No. 2 for pediatric nephrology
  • No. 2 for pediatric neurology/neurosurgery
  • No. 3 for pediatric pulmonology and lung surgery
  • No. 4 for pediatric cancer
  • No. 5 for pediatric diabetes and endocrinology
  • No. 5 for pediatric gastroenterology/GI surgery
  • No. 6 for pediatric urology
  • No. 10 for neonatology
  • No. 15 for pediatric orthopedics

Zooming in on the specific specialties, several other Houston hospitals in addition to these top tier hospitals, secured spots in the top 10 rankings.

University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center was ranked No. 1 nationally for adult cancer treatment. Additionally, the hospital made an appearance in six other adult specialties and one pediatric specialty.

  • No. 4 for ear, nose and throat
  • No. 6 for urology
  • No. 14 for gynecology
  • No. 27 for diabetes and endocrinology
  • No. 41 for geriatrics
  • No. 46 for gastroenterology/GI surgery
  • No. 38 for cancer (pediatric)
TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston ranked No. 3 nationally for rehabilitation.
For all 31 years, The Menninger Clinic has been recognized as a top hospital in the psychiatric speciality. This year, the clinic ranked at No. 9 nationally.

"Our clinical teams provide personalized care with the right blend of art and science. We have pioneered measuring the effectiveness of this treatment, and the results consistently demonstrate that patients sustain their well-being for at least a year after they leave Menninger," says Armando Colombo, president and CEO, in a news release. "Going forward, we will improve access to make it easier for more Texans to access these life-changing results."

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2 Houston startups win national technology award from SBA

winner, winner

A couple of Houston startups have something to celebrate. The United States Small Business Administration announced the winners of its Tibbetts Award, which honors small businesses that are at the forefront of technology, and two Houston startups have made the list.

Re:3D, a sustainable 3D printer company, and Raptamer Discovery Group, a biotech company that's focused on therapeutic solutions, were Houston's two representatives in the Tibbetts Award, named after Roland Tibbetts, the founder of the SBIR Program.

"I am incredibly proud that Houston's technology ecosystem cultivates innovative businesses such as re:3D and Raptamer. It is with great honor and privilege that we recognize their accomplishments, and continue to support their efforts," says Tim Jeffcoat, district director of the SBA Houston District Office, in a press release.

Re:3D, which was founded in 2013 by NASA contractors Samantha Snabes and Matthew Fiedler to tackle to challenge of larger scale 3D printing, is no stranger to awards. The company's printer, the GigaBot 3D, recently was recognized as the Company of the Year for 2020 by the Consumer Technology Association. Re:3D also recently completed The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator this year, which has really set the 20-person team with offices in Clear Lake and Puerto Rico up for new opportunities in sustainability.

"We're keen to start to explore strategic pilots and partnerships with groups thinking about close-loop economies and sustainable manufacturing," Snabes recently told InnovationMap on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Raptamer's unique technology is making moves in the biotech industry. The company has created a process that makes high-quality DNA Molecules, called Raptamers™, that can target small molecules, proteins, and whole cells to be used as therapeutic, diagnostic, or research agents. Raptamer is in the portfolio of Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which also won a Tibbetts Award that Fannin Innovation Studio in 2016.

"We are excited by the research and clinical utility of the Raptamer technology, and its broad application across therapeutics and diagnostics including biomarker discovery in several diseases, for which we currently have an SBIR grant," says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner at Fannin Innovation Studio.

This year, 38 companies were honored online with Tibbetts Awards. Since its inception in 1982, the awards have recognized over 170,000 honorees, according to the release, with over $50 billion in funding to small businesses through the 11 participating federal agencies.

Report: 2020 brought fewer, larger VC deals for Houston — but angel investment is on the rise

venture capital update

Houston startup's venture capital deals continue to grow in 2020, according to a new report from Houston Exponential. Last year, VC dollars were up, while deal count was down, representing more mature deals coming into the ecosystem — but the second half of the year was defined by a growth in angel investment interest.

The report by Serafina Lalany, chief of staff for HX, found that the Bayou City brought saw $715 million across 117 VC deals, according to Pitch Book data. It's the fourth year Houston has seen VC growth, and last year the city reported over $563 million across 168 deals.

"Houston has put concerted efforts into building its innovation ecosystem," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, in a release, "and 2020's record-breaking results show we are seeing not only resilience in the tech sector, but a significant increase in the rate of formation and success of growth-stage companies, which have an outsized effect on our local economy in terms of high paying job potential and Houston's increasing attractiveness as a great place to work."

Last August, HX published a report on the first half of the year and that study found that Houston — facing the challenges of both the pandemic and the oil price drop — managed to see a 7 percent increase in funding compared to the national average of 2.5 percent. With the second half of the year, the city's VC increase from last year was over 25 percent and up 252 percent since 2014.

The other difference between the first and second halves of the year for Houston VC was the stages of the deals made. Most of Houston's larger deals took place in the first and second quarters — and even the beginning of Q3 — of 2020:

But the second half of the year seemed like Houston's earlier stage VC activity returned, and Blair Garrou, managing partner at Houston-based Mercury Fund, confirmed this to InnovationMap on the Houston Innovator's Podcast in December.

"Seed rounds have definitely bounced back. We're seeing a lot of seed activity, because there's been a lot of seed funds raised," Garrou said on the podcast, adding that he's observed an increase in angel investment interest. "People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software."

In her report, Lalany found that in Houston, angel investments are out-pacing seed, creating a "competitive environment."

"The addition of multi-stage and nontraditional investment firms into the arena has created upward pressure in deal valuations and sizes. The average seed round in 2015 was $1 million, whereas today it's double that," the report reads. "With these firms turning inward to focus on protecting their current investments at the start of the pandemic, the propensity for smaller, more riskier investments have declined."

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network, said she's seen a rise in new membership for the organization. Last August, she was on track to get to 150 members — up from just 60 in 2018.

"Despite COVID, we've continued to grow," Campbell told InnovationMap, adding that she's heard investors express that they have more time now to dive in. "People are very much still interested in learning about deploying their capital into early-stage venture. They're looking for a network of like-minded individuals."

In contrast to this early stage activity, the VC activity that was still occurring was defined by larger deals. With VC essentially halting in March and April — especially in cities like Houston, Garrou adds — it makes sense that investors wanted more "sure things" and would invest more funds into companies they already know, versus being able to source new deals in person.

"When you go to later stages, there are a lot fewer deals going on," Garrou continues on the podcast. "Now, there may be larger investments being made, but I think they are into fewer companies, and I think that's just due to the the pandemic and the ability just to not be able to do face-to-face."

As Houston moves through 2021, the city is poised well for more growth and a continued diversification from just oil and gas, as Moore says in the release.

"Houston Exponential was created four years ago by civic and business leaders to deal with an existential problem: our dependence on the energy and medical sector without a thriving startup culture to lead us towards a future that will look very different from the past," he says. "COVID and the de-carbonization movement have made that need much more urgent — it's both a huge challenge and an enormous opportunity."