This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Dorit Donoviel of TRISH, Nuri Firat Ince of UH, and Vanessa Wade of Connect the Dots. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from space to engineering — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health

Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health

The new program will work with commercial spaceflight crews to bring back crucial research to one database. Photo via Libby Neder Photography

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine announced a unique program that will work with commercial spaceflight providers and their passengers. The EXPAND — Enhancing eXploration Platforms and Analog Definition — Program will collect information and data from multiple space flights and organize it in one place. TRISH selected TrialX to build the centralized database.

"The space environment causes rapid body changes. This can help us understand how we humans react to and overcome stress. Ensuring that space explorers remain healthy pushes us to invent new approaches for early detection and prevention of medical conditions," says Dorit Donoviel, executive director at TRISH, in the release.

"Studying a broad range of people in space increases our knowledge of human biology. TRISH's EXPAND program will leverage opportunities with commercial spaceflight providers and their willing crew to open up new research horizons." Click here to read more.

Nuri Firat Ince, associate professor of biomedical engineering at UH

A medical device designed by a UH professor will close the loop with high frequency brain waves to prevent seizures from occurring. Photo via uh.edu

Nuri Firat Ince, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at UH, has received a federal grant aimed at helping stop epileptic seizures before they start. The BRAIN Initiative at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke awarded the $3.7 million grant to go toward Ince's work to create a seizure-halting device based on his research.

According to UH, Ince has reduced by weeks the time it takes to locate the seizure onset zone (SOZ), the part of the brain that causes seizures in patients with epilepsy. He's done this by detecting high-frequency oscillations (HFO) forming "repetitive waveform patterns" that identify their location in the SOZ.

"If the outcomes of our research in acute settings become successful, we will execute a clinical trial and run our methods with the implanted … system in a chronic ambulatory setting," Ince says. Click here to read more.

Vanessa Wade, founder and owner of Connect the Dots

It's time for large corporations to step up to support small businesses founded by people of color. Photo courtesy

In her guest column for InnovationMap, Vanessa Wade addressed some of the challenges she faced founding a company as a person of color — specifically the lack of access to funding. In the article, she calls corporations to action to help business leaders like herself.

"The journey ahead can feel discouraging, but the good news is that now I have a much better idea of what it will take to build an equitable road back and get businesses like mine on even footing," she writes. Click here to read more.

It's time for large corporations to step up to support small businesses founded by people of color. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Corporations can help level the playing field for BIPOC-owned businesses

Guest column

There were times when I wasn't sure what to do next.

When I started Connect the Dots PR in 2012, I wrote out detailed business plans, saved startup dollars, and leaned heavily on people in the PR industry to guide me in terms of pricing and feedback. Of course, we had contingency plans for unexpected hardships, but you hope not to use them.

My contingency plans went out the window when we saw we were looking at more than a year of pandemic-related shutdowns and slowdowns. I didn't have time to wait it out or say let's see what happens. It was time to move strategically.

Like most businesses, we hit a snag. A big chunk of our client base was reeling with corporate layoffs, shutdowns and revamped budgets. We've held on, but at times, it was overwhelming. I remember when the pandemic initially shut everything down, my fear was what is going to happen to my business and those that depend on me, such as employees, vendors, clients and contractors? At the onset of the pandemic, an employee came to me and said if I needed to let them go they understood. It hurt to do so, but it was a mutual decision and he landed on his feet and relocated to another state.

For a business owner of color, the hurdles are higher. When building Connect the Dots PR, the most important driver was access to startup capital. But studies have shown that white entrepreneurs are able to contribute considerably more personal equity to their new businesses than entrepreneurs of color, because white American families have nearly 10 times as much wealth as Hispanic or Black American families.

While inequities existed before the pandemic, over the last year, they've gotten worse. Beyond the physical toll of COVID-19, which affected BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities, which includes Hispanic and Asian American communities among others, more severely than white ones, BIPOC-owned businesses have had less of a safety net to fall back on, have been more likely to close, and have had a harder time getting Paycheck Protection Program loans. Studies last summer showed that the pandemic shuttered Black-owned businesses at more than double the rate of white-owned businesses. It all leads to the deeply unequal recovery that we're just now embarking upon.

The journey ahead can feel discouraging, but the good news is that now I have a much better idea of what it will take to build an equitable road back and get businesses like mine on even footing.

First and foremost, there needs to be an investment in people of color-owned businesses from the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Six months ago, I applied to the Comcast RISE program which, since late last year, has invested in 2,500 BIPOC-owned businesses nationwide with monetary grants, technology makeovers and marketing services. I received the Comcast RISE Investment Fund for Connect the Dots PR, which provided relief when it was most needed. With this grant, I have been able to focus on the business and invest in my brand.

We're not the only ones. Comcast RISE plans to name 13,000 recipients by 2022. Houston was also one of five cities selected to award a $10,000 grant to 100 local businesses from the Comcast RISE Investment Fund, which is the grant I received. We need similar commitments from other corporations to level the playing field for people of color business owners.

Federal, state and local recovery programs need to target minority entrepreneurs. Too many of the existing relief efforts have had limited application windows or been first-come-first-served, which disadvantages businesses that are already starting from behind. Local organizations like the Greater Houston Black Chamber of Commerce can be useful allies in reaching businesses owned by historically disadvantaged groups.

Finally, financial institutions need better guardrails to ensure that they don't discriminate against nonwhite business owners. When accessing startup capital, barriers still exist for minority entrepreneurs, and keeping checks and balances on those with the balance sheets is the only way to make sure all businesses are starting on equal footing.

That way, when the next crisis hits, you'll have fewer businesses starting from behind, and we'll all find our way to recovery much faster. For all of us, that's a business plan worth holding onto.

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Vanessa Wade, is the founder and owner of Houston-based PR firm Connect the Dots.

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Annual Houston student startup competition doles out over $1.5M in cash, investment prizes

winner, winner

For the 24th year, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship hosted its Rice Business Plan Competition, facilitating over $1.5 million in investment and cash prizes to the top teams.

The 42 startups competing this year, which were announced earlier this year and included teams from around the world, participated in the three-day event that culminated in a reception on Saturday, April 6. The companies were divided into five categories: Energy, Cleantech and Sustainability; Hard Tech; Life Sciences and Healthcare Solutions; Digital Enterprise; Consumer Products and Services.

“We award the competitors $1 million in prizes, prizes that serve as foundational capital to launch their startup,” RBPC Director Catherine Santamaria says at the awards gala April 6. “That’s a large number of prizes, but the biggest thing our startups leave with is a feeling of generosity and community from this room. This community is always ready and willing to help our founders and support our vision for the competition by investing time, money and resources in these student innovators.”

While all participating teams received $950 for being selected, several teams walked away with thousands in funding, cash, and in-kind prizes. Here's which companies won big.

MesaQuantum, Harvard University — $335,000​

MesaQuantum is developing accurate and precise chip-scale clocks. While not named a finalist, the company secured the most amount of funding across a few prizes:

  • $250,000 OWL Investment Prizes
  • $60,000 nCourage Courageous Women Entrepreneur Investment Prize
  • $25,000 Jacobs, Intuitive Machines and WRX Companies Rising Stars Space Technology and Commercial Aerospace Cash Prize

Protein Pints, Michigan State University — $251,000

The big winner of the night was Protein Pints, a high-protein, low-sugar, ice cream product from Michigan State University. Not only did the company win first place and the $150,000 GOOSE Capital Investment Grand Prize, as decided by the more than 350 judges, but it won a few other investment prizes, including:

  • $100,000 The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) Texas Angels Investment Prize — Protein Pints, Michigan State University
  • The Eagle Investors Prize
  • $1,000 Anbarci Family Company Showcase Prize
  • Mercury Elevator Pitch Competition Prize (Best in Consumer Products)
  • An invitation to Entrepreneur Magazine's elevator pitch show

Osphim, RWTH Aachen University —$201,000

Osphim, a data acquisition and monitoring platform from Germany, won these prizes despite not being named a finalist:

  • $200,000 Goose Capital Investment Prize
  • $1,000 Anbarci Family Company Showcase Prize
  • Mercury Elevator Pitch Competition Prize (Best in Digital)

Somnair, Johns Hopkins University — $200,000

Taking second place and a $100,000 from David Anderson, Jon Finger, Anderson Family Fund, Finger Interests, Greg Novak and Tracy Druce was Somnair is a novel non-invasive neurostimulation device for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea. The company also won:

  • $100,000 Houston Angel Network Investment Prize
  • Mercury Elevator Pitch Competition Prize (Best in Life Science)
  • An invitation to Texas Medical Center's Accelerator Bootcamp
  • An invitation to Entrepreneur Magazine's elevator pitch show

Icorium Engineering Company, University of Kansas — $171,000

Icorium Engineering Company — a chemical engineering startup developing technologies to make sustainable, circular economies a reality for refrigerants and other complex chemical mixtures — won fifth place and a $5,000 prize sponsored by Norton Rose Fulbright, EY, Chevron Technology Ventures and Shell Ventures, as well as:

  • $100,000 OWL Investment Prizes
  • $40,000 nCourage Courageous Women Entrepreneur Investment Prize
  • $25,000 from Finger Interests, the Anderson Family Fund at the Greater Houston Community Foundation, Greg Novak and Tracy Druce
  • $1,000 Anbarci Family Company Showcase Prize
  • Mercury Elevator Pitch Competition Prize (Best in Energy, Sustainability)
  • An invitation to Entrepreneur Magazine's elevator pitch show

Informuta, Tulane University — $70,000

Informuta's proprietary technology leverages DNA sequencing to predict if bacteria will respond to different antibiotics or, for the very first time, develop future resistance thus causing treatment failure. The company won fourth place and a $5,000 prize sponsored by Norton Rose Fulbright, EY, Chevron Technology Ventures and Shell Ventures.

  • $40,000 Pearland EDC Spirit of Entrepreneurship Cash Prize
  • $25,000 from Finger Interests, the Anderson Family Fund at the Greater Houston Community Foundation, Greg Novak and Tracy Druce

EndoShunt Medical, Harvard University — $55,000

EndoShunt created a rapid, targeted blood flow control device to be use in emergency or trauma settings. The company won sixth place and the $5,000 prize, sponsored by Norton Rose Fulbright, EY, Chevron Technology Ventures and Shell Ventures, as well as:

  • $25,000 Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium Pediatric Device Cash Prize
  • $25,000 from Finger Interests, the Anderson Family Fund at the Greater Houston Community Foundation, Greg Novak and Tracy Druce

Power2Polymers, RWTH Aachen University —$50,000

Tackling the challenge of forever chemicals, Power2Polymers is creating safe alternatives free of forever chemicals. The German company took third place and the $50,000 investment sponsored by Finger Interests, the Anderson Family Fund at the Greater Houston Community Foundation, Greg Novak and Tracy Druce. The company also won the Mercury Elevator Pitch Competition Prize (Best Overall).

D.Sole, Carnegie Mellon University — $30,000

D. Sole won the wild card ticket to the finals and took seventh place. The company is advancing the development of remote patient monitoring in podiatry with foot insoles designed for the early detection and monitoring of diabetic foot complications, such as ulcers and deformities. They also won $30,000 from Finger Interests, the Anderson Family Fund at the Greater Houston Community Foundation, Greg Novak and Tracy Druce.

Other prizes:

  • $25,000 New Climate Ventures Sustainable Investment Prize went to Oxylus Energy from Yale University
  • $25,000 Dream Big Ventures Latino Entrepreneur Investment Prize went to Dendritic Health AI from Northwestern University
  • $25,000 NOV Energy Technology Innovation Cash Prize went to LiQuidium from the University of Houston
  • $25,000 Urban Capital Network Diversity Investment Prize in Partnership with South Loop Venture Investment Prize went to TouchStone from University of California, Berkeley

Troubled Texans are the 10th most stressed out people in America, report finds

new report

There is a plethora of reasons to be stressed out in 2024. Among the list of grievances are budgeting woes, lapses in addressing racial inequity, a significant amount of drunk driving, and prohibitively high healthcare costs.

So it comes as no surprise that Texas was ranked the No. 10 most stressed state of 2024, according to the latest annual report from WalletHub. Texans' stress levels are only slightly better than they were in 2023, when the Lone Star State ranked No. 9.

The personal finance website compared all 50 states across 40 unique metrics to determine every state’s worries on certain issues, such as employment, finance, health, or family-related stress.

Here's how Texas performed in the major categories in the study:

  • No. 5 – Work-related stress
  • No. 8 – Family-related stress
  • No. 11 – Health- and safety-related stress
  • No. 23 – Money-related stress

Texas employees have the second-longest workweek in the nation, the report found, placing the state right behind Alaska and tied with Wyoming. Places like Houston, Corpus Christi, and San Antonio are a few of the most stressful U.S. cities for workers in 2024 (with several other Texas cities not far behind), clearly showing that there's much more work to be done to alleviate Texans' work-related stress.

Hardships with work may have an influence on Texans' ability to rest at night, as the report additionally found Texas fell behind into No. 23 for its share of adults that get adequate sleep.

Other Texas-sized stress factors like crime rates, housing affordability, health troubles, and poverty rates also put a damper on residents' well-beings. Texans have the fourth lowest credit scores in the nation, the ninth highest share of adults with fair or poor health, and the 11th highest number of residents living in poverty.

It's not just young and middle-aged adults who experience these worries, the report claimed.

"[E]very age group except people 65 and older reported being under more stress in 2023 than they were in 2019 before the pandemic," the report's author wrote.

WalletHub analyst Cassandra Happe suggested a few ways frazzled Texans can try to improve their stress levels, such as exercising, participating in hobbies, going on vacations — of course, in whatever capacity that is most accessible — and seeking help from a mental health professional.

"What many people don’t realize, though, is that changing location can also be a big stress reducer," Happe added. "For example, states that have lower crime rates, better health care, and better economies tend to have much less stressed residents."

Texans surely aren't envious of Louisiana, which traded places with Mississippi (No. 2) in 2024 to become the nation's No. 1 most stressed out state. Louisiana residents experience the third highest work- and health-and-safety-related stress, the fourth highest money-related stress, and the 10th highest family-related stress. Louisianans may want to try some breathing exercises in their spare time.

Texas residents can, however, be filled with jealousy over Minnesota (No. 50), which was crowned the least stressed out city in America. Maybe that's where Texans need to be taking vacations.

The overall top 10 most stressed states are:

  • No. 1 – Louisiana
  • No. 2 – Mississippi
  • No. 3 – Nevada
  • No. 4 – New Mexico
  • No. 5 – Arkansas
  • No. 6 – West Virginia
  • No. 7 – Alabama
  • No. 8 – Kentucky
  • No. 9 – Oklahoma
  • No. 10 – Texas
The full report and its methodology can be found on wallethub.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.


Aziz Gilani, managing director at Mercury

Aziz Gilani, managing director at Mercury, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Aziz Gilani's career in tech dates back to when he'd ride his bike from Clear Lake High School to a local tech organization that was digitizing manuals from mission control. After years working on every side of the equation of software technology, he's in the driver's seat at a local venture capital firm deploying funding into innovative software businesses.

As managing director at Mercury, the firm he's been at since 2008, Gilani looks for promising startups within the software-as-a-service space — everything from cloud computing and data science and beyond.

"Once a year at Mercury, we sit down with our partners and talk about the next investment cycle and the focuses we have for what makes companies stand out," Gilani says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The current software investment cycle is very focused on companies that have truly achieved product-market fit and are showing large customer adoption." Read more.


Yaxin Wang, director of the Texas Heart Institute's Innovative Device & Engineering Applications Lab

The project is funded by a four-year, $7.8 million grant. THI will use about $2.94 million of that to fund its part of the research. Photo via texasheart.org

The United States Department of Defense has awarded a grant that will allow the Texas Heart Institute and Rice University to continue to break ground on a novel left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that could be an alternative to current devices that prevent heart transplantation and are a long-term option in end-stage heart failure.

The grant is part of the DOD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). It was awarded to Georgia Institute of Technology, one of four collaborators on the project that will be designed and evaluated by the co-investigator Yaxin Wang. Wang is part of O.H. “Bud” Frazier’s team at Texas Heart Institute, where she is director of Innovative Device & Engineering Applications Lab. The other institution working on the new LVAD is North Carolina State University.

The project is funded by a four-year, $7.8 million grant. THI will use about $2.94 million of that to fund its part of the research. As Wang explained to us last year, an LVAD is a minimally invasive device that mechanically pumps a person’s own heart. Frazier claims to have performed more than 900 LVAD implantations, but the devices are far from perfect. Read more.

Atul Varadhachary, managing director of Fannin Innovation

Atul Varadhachary also serves as CEO and president of Allterum Therapeutics. Photo via LinkedIn

Allterum Therapeutics, a Houston biopharmaceutical company, has been awarded a $12 million product development grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

The funds will support the clinical evaluation of a therapeutic antibody that targets acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.

However, CEO and President Atul Varadhachary, who's also the managing director of Fannin Innovation, tells InnovationMap, “Our mission has grown much beyond ALL.” Read more.