A new tool being used at Houston Methodist taps into artificial intelligence breast cancer diagnosis. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

In the medical field, billions of dollars are wasted each year — about $935 billion, but who's counting? According to a paper published by the JAMA Network, an estimated $75.7 billion to $101.2 billion is wasted through overtreatment. Of the many procedures that can lead to wasted resources, breast cancer biopsies are a major source of overtreatment. Houston Methodist Hospital is using artificial intelligence to create a more efficient and accurate Breast Cancer Risk Calculator, called iBrisk.

Breast cancer is something that plagues the lives of many women, and some men. According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.

Women are advised to start having annual mammograms to screen for breast cancer starting at age 40 to try to catch cancer in its earliest stages. With mammograms becoming a standard procedure, the process inevitably leads to more biopsies.

While more biopsies sound like the obvious course of action, Houston Methodist Hospital shares that out of 10,000 women biopsied, less than two will be positive while using the national standard. The result of a negative biopsy? Wasted time, resources, and money, as well as undue worry for the patient.

"It's not just wasteful. . .when you do an unnecessary procedure, you're potentially harming the patient," says Stephen Wong, Ph.D. After a negative biopsy, Dr. Wong explains that patients often begin to show emotional responses like high anxiety and low self-esteem. They often speculate the biopsies are wrong, and that they've had a missed cancer diagnosis by their medical provider.

Dr. Wong estimates that more than 700,000 patients have unnecessary biopsies in the breast cancer category alone.

Spearheading the iBrisk tool, Dr. Wong has found a way to utilize a smarter model than the current system for detecting breast cancer risk.

Hospitals across the country currently use the Breast Imaging Reporting and Database System score (BI-RADS), a system created by the American College of Radiology to determine breast cancer risk and biopsy decision-making.

To expand on BI-RADS data, Dr. Wong used multiple patient data points and AI technology to create the improved system. The iBRISK integrates natural language processing, medical image analysis, and deep learning on multi-modal BI-RADS patient data to make one of three recommendations: biopsy not recommended, consider biopsy, or biopsy recommended.

"While using AI, we try to simulate how the physician thinks," explains Dr. Wong. "The physician looks at different data: imaging, patient clinical data, demographic, history and other social factors. You don't rely on one particular thing."

To create iBrisk, Dr. Wong used 12 to 13 years of BI-RAD data at Houston Methodist Hospital to train the AI using deep learning.

He estimates that more than 80 percent of technical information is in the free text format, meaning unstructured data, in the United States.

"We applied an AI technique called natural language processing, which is using the computer to read the text automatically for us," explains Dr. Wong.

This data extraction tool was also used with imaging of mammogram ultrasounds by applying image analysis computer vision.

iBrisk also deploys deep learning, a machine learning tactic where artificial neural networks, inspired by the human brain, learn from large amounts of data. They determined approximately 100 parameters to analyze, including age, sex, socio-economic data, medical history, and insurance plans. After putting the data points into a deep learning method, the AI reduced the data points to the 20 risk indicators.

Houston Methodist Hospital used an estimated 11,000 cases for training, and then used 2,200 of its own data to test iBrisk. They have even been able to create unbiased independent validation by working with other hospitals like MD Anderson, testing their patients using iBrisk and confirming the results.

The potential of iBrisk to cut costs and contribute to less overtreatment has garnered support with other hospitals around the country. The breast cancer risk calculator is a collaboration with Dr. Jenny Chang of HMCC and breast oncologists at MD Anderson, UT San Antonio, and University of Utah Cancer Center.

While implicit racial bias has become a more prominent issue in the United States, Houston Methodist's iBrisk grants a neutral, unbiased lens. AI isn't immune to racial bias; in fact, computer scientist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, Joy Buolamwini, uncovered the large gender and racial biases of AI systems sold by IBM, Amazon and Microsoft in a 2019 article for Time.

With AI's history of racial bias in mind, Dr. Wong set out to create an impartial, fair system. "Our AI data is not sensitive to race. . .it's unbiased," he explains.

Houston Methodist Hospital plans to expand the iBrisk model to other forms of cancer in the future, including its next venture into thyroid and incidental lung nodule screenings.

The AI allows patients to save the stress of getting a biopsy.

"We are very careful to put any drugs or any procedure into clinical workflow until we are very sure you really have to pick this [outcome]," explains Dr. Wong. Using advanced risk detectors like iBrisk allows medical practitioners to make more thorough, informed decisions for patients looking into biopsies.

The categories are broken into low, moderate and high-risk groups. The low-risk groups have seen a 99.8 percent accuracy in results, missing only two cases out of a sample of 1,228. Patients that have fallen into the high-risk groups (leading patients to get a biopsy) have seen an 85.9 percent accuracy, compared to radiology, which is 25 percent accurate according to Dr. Wong.

Dr. Wong notes that patients that fall in the moderate section of the risk assessment can then have a dialogue with their physician to determine if they want to move forward with the biopsy. In the moderate category, there is a 93.4 percent accuracy.

If implemented, iBrisk would be able to reduce 75 percent of unnecessary biopsies, estimates Dr. Wong.

Currently, Houston Methodist Hospital is using AI technology outside of oncology, with the recent release of a tool that can diagnose strokes using a smartphone, announced in Science Daily. The tool, which can diagnose abnormalities in a patient's speech and facial muscular movements, was made in collaboration with Dr. Jay Volpi of Eddy Scullock Stroke Center at Houston Methodist Hospital.

"We are answering bigger questions," explains Dr. Wong, who looks forward to continuing to expand AI capabilities and risk calculators at Houston Methodist Hospital.

In the future, Dr. Wong looks forward to doing a multicenter trial to bring this technology outside of Texas.

Texans see need for telemedicine amid the pandemic, Liftoff Houston has launched applications, ChipMonk Bakery is growing, and more of the latest Houston innovation news. Getty Images

Startups raise funds, Houston biz contest opens apps, and more innovation news

Short stories

From health-conscious cookies reaching fundraising goals to a Houston-wide business competition, the Bayou City's innovation news is pretty diverse.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of startup and tech short stories, there's everything from telemedicine, fundraising, and more.

Houston baking startup raises money after finding its new home

ChipMonk Baking Company, a consumer packaged goods startup focused on healthy dessert options, has met its goal of $150,000. Photo courtesy of ChipMonk

Houston-based ChipMonk Baking Company, which recently found a new home in a new dedicated production facility, has reached its goal on its investment round on NextSeed.

ChipMonk, which was founded last year to create sweets that use sweeteners monk fruit and allulose for health-conscious consumers, will soon operate in a 2,300-square-foot space at 3042 Antoine Dr. The space is strictly for baking, storage, etc. and will not have a storefront.

Co-founders Jose Hernandez and David Downing have seen a spike in demand since the start of the pandemic, which increased the need to upgrade from shared kitchen space.

"The stay-at-home environment has encouraged many people to think more about their health and to start cooking and baking more at home. We've been able to offer a delicious option that fits perfectly in this growing trend," says Downing, who also serves as CEO.

ChipMonk's lease begins next month, and, to fund its growth plans, the company launched a its campaign on NextSeed. In just a couple weeks, the startup met its fundraising goal of $150,000.

Cancer nonprofit moves into new space

The Rose has a new facility to better serve patients. Photos courtesy of The Rose

The Rose, a Houston-based breast cancer nonprofit that provides medical services to 40,000 patients annually, has moved into its new space at 6575 West Loop South, suite 275, in May.

"We know this location will allow us to better serve our community," says Dorothy Gibbons, co-founder and CEO of The Rose, in a news release. "During this time of the pandemic, we've added so many safety precautions and will continue to space appointments to allow social distancing. Most of all we want our patients to feel safe and welcome from the moment they walk through our door."

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, data reports have shown a drop in routine health care, like cervical and breast cancer screenings. Gibbons says the drop in these appointments is concerning and those who postpone routine screening or diagnostic testing could be at risk for developing later stage breast cancer.

"Our message to our patients is breast cancer is not going to wait until this pandemic is over; neither should you. With the projected increase in uninsured women, due to so many job losses, The Rose has to be ready to serve. Now more than ever, we depend on our insured patients to help cover the care for uninsured patients," she says.

Houston business competition opens applications

Small businesses in Houston have until August 10 to apply for the annual Liftoff Houston competition. Photo via liftoffhouston.smapply.org

The city of houston's annual business plan competition, Liftoff Houston, has opened applications. The program, which is sponsored by Capital One Bank, is looking for companies and will award winners in three categories: Product, service, and innovation

Each business that wins will receive a $10,000 cash prize. The competition is focused on early stage startups with revenue less than $10,000 and must have only been in business for less than a year. The companies also must be based in Houston.

Applicants can submit their information online to be considered for the contest. The deadline to apply is August 10.

TMCx company closes $1.53 million seed round

Manatee

Manatee has raised funds for its digital therapy platform. Photo via getmanatee.com

Manatee, a health tech startup based in Denver that was a member of this year's TMCx cohort, has announced it closed its seed funding round at $1.53 million. The company, which provides digital solutions to therapy for children, closed the round at the end of June.

Michigan-based Grand Ventures led the raise and invested alongside The American Family Insurance Institute (AmFam), Telosity, SpringTime Ventures, and notable health care entrepreneurs, Danish Munir, Luke Leninger, and Johnathan Weiner, according to information emailed by Manatee representative.

"Manatee was the first solution we found that really understood kids and their unique needs," says Christopher Neuharth, executive director of digital health and experience at Children's Wisconsin. "They got the dynamics between the child, parent, and therapist – and how to influence behavior change."

Accenture study finds COVID-19 has been a gamechanger for telemedicine

Houston medical organizations pivot to telemedicine and remote care amid COVID-19 crisis

An Accenture study found that most Texans are seeking telehealth amid the pandemic. Getty Images

According to a recent study from Accenture, 89 percent of Texas consumers want telehealth options — and the COVID-19 pandemic deserves the credit for the increased interest.

According to a press release from the company, the research found that:

  • One-fourth of Texans surveyed said they first learned about virtual health care following the outbreak of COVID-19.
  • The number of Texans who said they know a little or a lot about virtual health care increased 25 percent following the outbreak.
  • Approximately nine in 10 Texans surveyed after the pandemic began believe that virtual care options should be available to everyone.

The widespread stay-at-home orders exposed Texans to virtual health care and left a positive impression on receiving care remotely. For instance:

  • An estimated 4.5 million state residents began using virtual health care services since the onset of the pandemic.
  • Nearly half (45 percent) of Texans said they trust a virtual health visit as much as or more than an in-person visit—a 15 percent uptick from the pre-pandemic period.
  • Six out of seven remote-care patients (86 percent) who have continued to use virtual care options during the pandemic said their experience after the start of the COVID-19 outbreak was better or the same as before, and three-quarters (76 percent) said their wait time was shorter or the same.

"A lot of Texans got a taste for what it's like to see their physicians and specialists from the safety and comfort of their home," says Mark Olney, a managing director in Accenture's health practice and the study's lead author. "Now patients are eager to get more of that access, convenience and time savings."

Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

These 3 Houston research projects are aiming to fight or prevent cancer

Research roundup

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."

Through a partnership between two Houston companies, installing breast cancer screening technology is easier than ever. Getty Images

Houston tech company is helping to scale breast cancer screening using IT solutions

tech detection

With October being National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, two Houston companies are working to provide a fast and accurate diagnostic solution.

Accudata Systems and Solis Mammography announced a new partnership with the creation of Center-in-a-Box, a technology solution that supports the rapid deployment of breast screening and diagnostic service. Combining IT design, engineering, equipment installation, and go-live support into one full-service package, Center-in-a-Box is forecasted to grow Solis by approximately 30 to 60 new mammography centers within the next 24 months.

Brian DiPaolo, the chief technology officer of Accudata Systems, tells InnovationMap that the product side of the solution includes equipment for a healthcare clinic, network and security infrastructure, as well as computers, tablets, phones, printers, scanners, and more.

"What differentiates Accudata is the services we provide," says DiPaolo. "From procurement and project management to design, installation, and ongoing support, Accudata is a one-stop shop for turning up a new site quickly."

According to a news release, there is a great demand to provide more centers nationwide, Solis saw the need for innovation and a cost-effective solution and turned to Accudata for assistance. In partnership with Solis, Accudata created a full-service solution for the IT design, equipment, and deployment of one clinic.

"Accudata identified the business challenge centered around people, processes, and products," says DiPaolo. "Solis was unable to scale quickly, limited resources could not provide adequate support, and they did not have the necessary project management and service delivery capabilities. Procurement from different vendors and manufacturers was difficult to manage, and the current network architecture made the process of spinning up new sites difficult and time-consuming."

DiPaolo tells InnovationMap that the company assists Solis when it's time to build out a new clinic or renovate an existing site, first performing a wireless survey to figure out the size of the clinic (small, medium, or large) and the equipment needed. Once this step is complete and the team understands the need, Accudata can begin the process of setting up the equipment in their lab before shipping it to the site and completing the deployment. The total turnaround time from purchase to clinic go-live is just three weeks.

The partnership creates a powerful match. Accudata Systems, founded in 1982 by Rich Johnson and Terry Dickson, is one of the largest IT integrators in the United States with 136 Houston-based employees, as well as a few in San Antonio and Austin and 30 in Dallas. Solis Mammography is the nation's largest independent provider of breast screening and diagnostic services with more than 50 centers in Texas, Arizona, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C, Maryland, and Virginia.

"According to the World Health Organization, breast cancer is the most frequent cancer among women, impacting 2.1 million women each year," says Solis Chief Information Officer Guhan Raghu in a news release. "Breast cancer rates are increasing in nearly every region globally, making the screening and diagnostic services Solis provides ever more vital to early diagnosis and treatment. The Center-in-a-Box IT solution developed with Accudata allows Solis to rapidly address mammography needs across the United States and further fulfill our promise to help women achieve and maintain breast health and peace of mind."

Houston researchers are hard at work in the lab to progress medical advancements at the bedside. Getty Images

These 3 medical innovations are ones to watch in Houston

Research roundup

Every day, important research is being completed under the roofs of Houston medical institutions. From immunotherapy to complex studies on how a memory is made, Houston researchers are discovering and analyzing important aspects of the future of medicine.

Here are three research projects currently being conducted around town.

University of Houston's potential solution to sickle cell disease

Vassiliy Lubchenko is a University of Houston associate professor of chemistry. Courtesy of UH

For the most part, sickle cells have been a mystery to scientists, but one University of Houston professor has recently reported a new finding on how sickle cells are formed — enlightening the medical community with hopes that better understanding the disease may lead to prevention.

Vassiliy Lubchenko, UH associate professor of chemistry, shared his new finding in Nature Communications. He reports that "droplets of liquid, enriched in hemoglobin, form clusters inside some red blood cells when two hemoglobin molecules form a bond — but only briefly, for one thousandth of a second or so," reads a release from UH.

In sickle cell disease, or anemia, red blood cells are crescent shaped and don't flow as easily through narrow blood vessels. The misshapen cells are caused by abnormal hemoglobin molecules that line up into stiff filaments inside red blood cells. Those filaments grow when the protein forms tiny droplets called mesoscopic.

"Though relatively small in number, the mesoscopic clusters pack a punch," says Lubchenko in the release. "They serve as essential nucleation, or growth, centers for things like sickle cell anemia fibers or protein crystals. The sickle cell fibers are the cause of a debilitating and painful disease, while making protein crystals remains to this day the most important tool for structural biologists."

Lubchenko conclusion is that the key to prevent sickle cell disease is to is to stop the formation of the initial clusters so fibers aren't able to grow out of them.

Baylor College of Medicine's immunotherapy research in breast cancer

science-Digital Composite Image Of Male Scientist Experimenting In Laboratory

Baylor College of Medicine researchers are looking into the complexities of immune cells in breast cancer. Getty Images

Baylor College of Medicine researchers are leading an initiative to figure out the potential effect of immunotherapy on different types of breast cancers. Their report is featured in Nature Cell Biology.

The scientists zoned in on two types of immune cells — neutrophils and macrophages — and they found frequency differed in a way that indicated potential roles in immunotherapy.

"Focusing on neutrophils and macrophages, we investigated whether different tumors had the same immune cell composition and whether seemingly similar immune components played the same role in tumor growth. Importantly, we wanted to find out whether differences in immune cell composition contributed to the tumors' responses to immunotherapy," says Dr. Xiang 'Shawn' Zhang, professor at the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center and member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine, in a news release.

Further exploring the discrepancies between the immune cells and the role they play in tumor growth will help better understand immunotherapy's potential in certain types of breast cancer.

"These findings are just the beginning. They highlight the need to investigate these two cellular types deeper. Under the name 'macrophages' there are many different cellular subtypes and the same stands for neutrophils," Zhang says. "We need to identify at single cell level which subtypes favor and which ones disrupt tumor growth taking also into consideration tumor heterogeneity as both are relevant to therapy."

Rice University, UTHeath, and UH's memory-making study

Researchers from all corners of Houston are diving into how memories are made. Courtesy of Rice University

When you make a memory, your brain cells structurally change. Through a multi-institutional study with researchers from UH, Rice University, and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, we now know more about the way memories are made.

When forming memories, three moving parts work together in the human brain — a binding protein, a structural protein and calcium — to allow for electrical signals to enter neural cells and change the molecular structures in cognition. The scientists compared notes on how on that binding protein works.

The team's study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Peter Wolynes, a theoretical physicist at Rice, UH physicist Margaret Cheung, and UTHealth neurobiologist Neal Waxham worked together to understand the complex process memories experience in the process of being made.

"This is one of the most interesting problems in neuroscience: How do short-term chemical changes lead to something long term, like memory?" Waxham says in a release from Rice. "I think one of the most interesting contributions we make is to capture how the system takes changes that happen in milliseconds to seconds and builds something that can outlive the initial signal."

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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.