Now is Houston's chance to create a modern economic cluster around health information and knowledge exchange. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

For the most part, Houstonians were either born here or came here in pursuit of economic opportunity — a job of some sort that brought us to Houston, either directly or indirectly. Economic opportunity is part of the DNA of this city. The breadth of opportunities our city affords people from all over our country and all over our world are seemingly endless.

Houston's growth in the 20th century was fueled by large, strategic, capital investments in our region's infrastructure. Railroads, Hobby and Bush airports, the Port of Houston, the Texas Medical Center, NASA's Johnson Space Center, the Astrodome, and our surrounding petrochemical facilities have all been enormous economic drivers of investment, jobs, and prosperity for our region.

We are all familiar with the names of our early city visionaries and leaders. Were it not for their vision and leadership, Houston would still be a backwater town on the bayou, 50 miles inland from the closest seaport. Many of these leaders of early Houston had both a legitimate self-interest and a sense of civic virtue that inspired them to give back to a community that nurtured their success. They strongly believed in building a better Houston both for themselves and for succeeding generations with a can-do community spirit. Much of their success in developing Houston into the international city of today was a result of employing innovative mechanisms for matching private and public funding.

Today, the Texas Medical Center located in Houston is comprised of over 50 hospitals, medical schools, and other institutions that are all dedicated to public health. The TMC itself has an intertwined and symbiotic relationship with Houston and is a case study in how public and private institutions can work together to create such a unique medical complex that has benefited so many — and will benefit so many more in the future.

The good news is that today most institutions and physicians have electronic medical records. The bad news is that there is still a problem sending a patient's data across the street to a different health care provider electronically. This problem is called a lack of "interoperability" of health records, and this remains an unsolved problem nationally.

Making the data available to enable access to the right information at the right time to deliver the right care, is a challenge for every health care community in the country. That unresolved national problem can be Houston's opportunity to offer solutions and to leverage one of its largest industries.

We can transform health care delivery by enabling access to comprehensive electronic patient information when and where needed. There is now a strong consensus that new health information and communication technologies have a critical role to play in building a twenty-first century health care system that is safe, effective, patient-centric and equitable.

Most consumers today carry a powerful computer in their pocket called a smartphone. These consumers, also known as patients, are the most underutilized member of the health care delivery team and the only constant factor in the delivery of care. Moreover, the patient should care most about effective delivery of care and outcome. Notably, the added cost to have the patient involved is essentially zero in relation to the cost of delivery so patients would get better care at less cost.

We grew up thinking that doctor knows best, but that was until Dr. Google showed up able to make virtual house calls, whenever, and on demand. How many industries have we witnessed that were disrupted by the Internet? All indications are that this transformation will increase is size, scope and speed and is set to disrupt the largest industry in the largest economy in the world. We are at the dawn of the consumerization of health care.

Because of the enormous social challenges, there is currently no community in the United States that is an economic cluster for health information technology and health information exchange. Houston has the resources to become that community and create a health care hi-tech economic cluster. This suggestion is no more bold than a proposal to dig the Ship Channel 50 miles, or creating the first domed stadium in the world, or landing a man on the surface of the moon and returning him safely to Earth.

Now is Houston's chance to create a modern economic cluster around health information and knowledge exchange. If we are successful, Houston can then not only legitimately claim to be the home of the largest medical center in the world, but also the best.

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Manfred Sternberg of Manfred Sternberg & Assoc. PC Attorneys at Law has practiced consumer and commercial law for over 30 years.

Rachel Moncton joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share why ClassPass chose Houston for its fourth domestic hub and what the consumer tech company has on its horizon for 2021. Photo courtesy of ClassPass

Tech exec shares how she's excited to 'make a splash' in Houston with recent expansion

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 75

When Rachel Moncton decided she wanted to move back to the United States after years of growing consumer tech company ClassPass internationally, she had no clue where she was going to end up.

The current vice president of marketing had served in various leadership roles for the company, and the powers at be at ClassPass, a consumer-facing tech company that brings together fitness classes and wellness experiences onto one app, decided that Moncton's move would be to spearhead the company's fourth office in Houston.

ClassPass, which was founded in New York City in 2011 before quickly opening its second office in San Francisco. Moncton says a few years ago the company conducted a search for a city that would make for a great expansion and, while Houston was definitely a contender, Missoula, Montana, became the next hub for ClassPass, which has raised over $500 million in venture capital. But, Houston was top of mind for the next expansion.

"When we were thinking about our fourth U.S. office, we wanted something bigger — we're growing quickly and knew we would have to tap into a large talent pool," Moncton says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, noting other elements like Houston's parks, sports teams, culture, universities, and more.

"I get a lot of people saying, 'Houston? That's an interesting choice and not what we'd expect,'" Moncton says. "But that's one of the things we like about it. There's a good startup scene here but not a million different consumer tech companies, so it's nice that we are able to make a bit of a splash."

Last fall, Moncton made her move to Houston to stand up the office virtually, at first, and now the local team is 10 people strong. Currently, ClassPass is looking for its physical space somewhere inside the loop and is hoping to have it open by this summer. Likely, Moncton says, the office will start in a coworking or flexible space that will be able to grow alongside the team.

And speaking of growth, Moncton says ClassPass is still hiring in Houston for roles from sales and finance to customer service and more.

"We are hiring across the board. It's fun for the teams to get to meet people you might not be working with day to day, and it fosters a better sense of empathy and understanding of how the company works," Moncton says. "Even though I lead marketing, it's by no means a marketing hub."

As ClassPass expands its presence, Moncton says she's focused on expanding the company's partners on the app. ClassPass has historically connected users to fitness studios but now is featuring more and more health, wellness, and beauty experiences.

"The technology we've built is to help people find things to book in their city," Moncton says. "There's a lot of (fitness studios) and it can be hard to find what you're looking for. Beauty and wellness are no different."

Moncton shares more about what she's excited about for the future of ClassPass, and how she's experienced Houston so far on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Wayt is a new app that makes both sides of a shopping transaction smoother and social distancing compliant. Photo courtesy of Wayt

Houston-area student creates new app to help businesses operate safely during COVID-19

there's an app for that

A 17-year-old high school student from the Houston area stepped up to help his local community, as the coronavirus continues to keep many customers from shopping the way they used to.

The Wayt app, created during the stay-at-home order in March, presents itself as an efficient and easy-to-use platform to streamline shopping during the times of the coronavirus. The app provides businesses and their customers with a platform to communicate making curbside pickup, booking appointments, and joining a virtual line a breeze.

"The platform provides a new set of tools for both the customers and the employees of businesses," says Ethan Saadia, app developer and Wayt creator. "With the use of this app, businesses can streamline the process and remove the hassle of shopping for customers."

The app offers a new way to open businesses by using technology that can manage capacity and keep them connected as many businesses move to curbside pickup. The platform allows customers to receive notifications about their order and tap a button to tell the business they're here, removing the hassle of calling customers to tell them their order is ready.

Wayt provides businesses with the customer name and car information, it even lets them know if the customer wants the order delivered directly to their trunk or other areas of their vehicle. This instant notification system keeps businesses and clients safe allowing them to practice strict social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"The use of this app will be able to remove a lot of the anxiousness that we have currently," says Saadia. "It will allow for a more convenient shopping experience as we continue to deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in all of our lives."

The platform also allows businesses to offer shopping appointments to abide with reduced capacity mandates, letting customers pick when they can come in within the constraints customized by the business. The app also makes standing in line while keeping social distancing recommendations easy by having customers tap a button on the app to get in line.

According to Saadia, a lot of these changes — like curbside pickup and virtual lines — are here to stay.

"From my perspective and experiences from my friends and family," says Saadia. "Curbside pickup and virtual lines are definitely here to stay because even before the pandemic, popular places used to have long lines and that presented many new challenges. The pandemic is just accelerating technological change that will make our lives easier."

Saadia, a serial innovator and app developer, started his first company in 2013 called PCs for Me where he sells DIY computer kits that help kids learn computer science. While he expects to continue that venture and Wayt, Saadia says he's conscious that things can change unexpectedly as he enters his senior year.

"I know we live under a very uncertain time and I don't really know what's going to happen with school a month from now or a year from now," says Saadia. "My plan is to keep taking it day by day working on Wayt to improve the user experience and work on other apps that I have on the pipeline."

Ethan Saadia, a 17-year-old high school student, created an app to improve the user experience of shopping during a pandemic.

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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.