Six members of the UH community participated in the inaugural Innov8 Hub's Innovators to Founders Cohort. Photo via UH.edu

A new accelerator at the University of Houston recently wrapped its first program for a cohort of five early-stage startups.

Known as the Innov8 Hub's Innovators to Founders Cohort, the accelerator is a founder-driven program in partnership with the UH Technology Bridge, the Innovation Center, and the Texas Gulf Coast Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Innov8 is designed to aid six to eight aspiring entrepreneurs bring their concepts to market and assist them in applying for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants.

Founders recently showcased their work before potential partners and investors at the hub's first-ever Startup Pitch Day following the conclusion of the 12-week program.

“The goal of the programs is for the founders to launch new ventures and develop business plans they can use to raise money and attract C-suite level employees to join their team,” Tanu Chatterji, associate director of startup development at Tech Bridge and co-founder of Innov8 Hub, said in a statement. “These programs aren’t classroom-teacher driven so the founders have to commit to engage and spend the time necessary to reap the benefits.”

The Innovators to Founders Cohort runs for three months each semester. Cohort members will devote three hours each week to the program. Photo via UH.edu

The inaugural cohort included:

Shoujun Xu, UForce Biotechnology: Xu is a chemistry professor at UH and has developed a new technique of super-resolution force spectroscopy, or SURFS, and plans to launch his company, UForce Biotechnology, in the future. He aims to use the SURFS technique to advance drug screening. His pitch at the Startup Pitch Day was named the best of the night, and Xu went home with $7,500 in legal services and one year of coworking space free of charge.

Easy Anyama, ODX Health: Anyama is a fourth-year student in the UH College of Optometry. His company, ODX Health, aims to improve "data harmonization, interoperability and integration in eyecare to reduce inefficiencies and enhance health outcomes," according to UH.

Jeremy Tee and Easy Anyama, Ringit: Anyama joined fellow fourth-year student in the UH College of Optometry Jeremy Tee in a second pitch, Ringit. The startup aims to provide a low-cost medication management solution for the visually impaired. It is developing an adaptive labeling system that helps the visually impaired identify their medication and dosages independently via intuitive, "touch-based features," according to UH.

Jan Beetge, AltiSora: Beetge has developed "Botox for wood." The product is made from high- sustainability raw materials that are non-hazardous and non-toxic. Potential applications include waterproofing of electronic equipment or electrical cables or connections in cables, such as cables used in marine applications, according to the company's website.

Jason Shi, Smart Planter Project: Shi is developing a "high-tech planter, a device that autonomously takes care of your plants and keeps them healthy while you’re gone," according to UH. He aims to soon test the product with customers.

The Innovators to Founders Cohort runs for three months each semester. Cohort members will devote three hours each week to the program.

The Innov8 Hub also offers an SBIR/STTR Support Cohort and a WKI Program for Student Entrepreneurial Support Cohort.

Last year, UH also named eight graduate students to its first-ever UH-Chevron Energy Graduate Fellows cohort.
Put in the effort to create a strong people culture from the start — it can make all the difference for your company. Photo by Tom Werner/Getty Images

Houston expert: How to build a strong people culture from day one

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Entrepreneurs are driven and tenacious when building a business. However, the laser focus on making a business profitable, from logistics to taxes and everything in between, can sometimes cause one important element to be missed, the people.

The best business plans cannot work without people to implement the details. When a strong people culture is established from the very beginning, the employees who help build the company from the ground up, stay engaged and can become an integral part of the company’s success for years to come.

Below are a few items to help entrepreneurs concentrate on their most precious asset, their people, pinpoint their motivations and learn how employees can enjoy what they do every day, which can take any business to the next level.

Share values

The onus falls on the business leaders within a startup to create a work environment that encourages employees to succeed and enjoy their career. Nurturing a culture rooted in a shared mission and values allows the company to easily build a desirable workplace where employees are eager to return.

When communicating a company’s values, they are more influential when they are lived by leadership. For example, if curiosity is a key value, leadership should encourage teams to ask questions and not be afraid to try to speak up when there may be a more effective path for the business.

It is also important for business owners to look for candidates to fill roles in the growing business who embody their key values. This may mean looking beyond the job description for like-minded people who align with the values and who then bring a positive outlook to the position, are more apt to collaborate and are fully engaged.

Offer unique benefits

Small businesses have the upper hand when it comes to unique benefits because they are a much nimbler organization. When an organization intentionally creates a people-first environment, there is near immediate access to leadership, rapid advancement opportunities are more plentiful and the impact employees at every level can have on the organization is monumental. This is an exciting prospect for so many who share an entrepreneur’s vision.

There are also the traditional benefits that are essential to a strong people culture. This may seem like a daunting prospect, but it can be simple to provide employees, while also competing with large-company benefits, with the help of a professional employer organization. What will strengthen a people culture’s foundation is offering the traditional benefits along with the benefits many enjoyed during the pandemic, which may have been cut by other organizations, such as mental health programs, expanded sick-leave, financial wellness programs, care benefits and others.

When deciding what benefits to offer, it is important to ask employees what benefits mean the most to them. Every benefit may not be feasible, but employees having a say in their benefits further strengthens the people culture.

Communicate

It sounds simple but establishing a culture with transparent communication, within reason, is conducive to a strong people culture. However, for many entrepreneurs, communicating without a plan often leads to not communicating at all.

Set the stage for clear, consistent communication from the very beginning. For example, establishing a standing meeting, whether it is once per week or every morning, allows leadership to share updates, make announcements and point out team wins. For employees, it is an open forum to ask questions. Also setting the standard to talk to employees before making any major policy changes builds trust in the organization, even if the policy change may not be the most desirable for everyone. By surveying staff before a policy change, leadership can clearly communicate the reasoning and have a fully prepared team before implementation.

In a growing business, it is easy to put your head down and grind forward, but engaged employees are essential to making an entrepreneur’s dream come to fruition. Putting in the effort to create a strong people culture from the start will help ensure you have employees who want to be a part of the organization and contribute to its success.

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Jill Chapman is a director of early talent programs with Insperity, a leading provider of human resources and business performance solutions.
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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.