Corporations can do more than just throw money at innovation efforts. Photo via Getty Images

I vividly remember, it was a typical Tuesday at Houston Exponential, and I’m sipping maybe my third coffee of the morning when the phone rings.

On the line is yet another hopeful voice from a newly minted innovation group at a "big company." They lay out their vision: “We’ve got this new innovation group! It’s me — a tech enthusiast who’s been yelling into the corporate void about needing to shake things up for the last two decades — plus a data scientist who loves numbers more than people, and a procurement guy who… well, procures stuff. And here’s the kicker: they’ve handed us $60 million to put to work. But here’s the catch — this treasure needs to be turned into a groundbreaking innovation that will dazzle the C-Suite, in about six months.”

I chuckle then sigh, because I’ve heard this story not once or twice, but about a dozen times over. And unfortunately, each of those grand plans crashed faster than a shooting star burning out over the Texas night sky — brilliant, swift, and leaving us wondering what might have been. Why? Well, let’s dig into some observations from my time working with institutional innovators from around the world and uncover just why throwing money at innovation like confetti at a wedding isn’t the quick fix big companies hope it will be.

The big miss here is a deep understanding of and ability to articulate the challenges. Innovation isn’t a highway where you can just press the gas and speed straight to Mt. Scale. It’s more like a winding country road with breathtaking views, unexpected potholes, and the occasional bewildered chicken crossing your path. For institutional innovators — the brave souls charting the course through this ever-changing landscape — the journey is filled with excitement, challenges, and the promise of discovery.

In my first hand experience mentoring over 500 startups and corporations, I’ve seen that the magic of innovation doesn’t come from a deep-pocketed budget but from a deep understanding of the problems we aim to solve. If you can view challenges through a kaleidoscope of perspectives, not just through the monochrome lens of one industry, you find the alternate routes that, while not exactly shortcuts, do keep you from turning down dark alleys and dead ends. A key observation here is that solutions to hard problems often lie in adjacent industries.

For example, consider how biomimicry has led to inventions like Velcro, inspired by burrs' ability to stick to animal fur, or how bullet trains in Japan were designed to mimic the kingfisher's beak for better aerodynamics. These are just a few examples of how solutions to complex problems often reside right in front of us or in the industry next door. Right here in Houston, Pumps & Pipes is a glowing example of how experts from Energy, Life Science and Space converge on similar problem sets with wildly different perspectives and applications.

Imagine if the engineers at NASA sat down for tacos with teachers from the local high school, or if doctors brainstormed with video game designers over a game of pickleball. Sounds fun, right? But it’s also where the magic happens. When we step out of our industry bubbles, we find that the solutions to our biggest problems often come from the most unexpected places.

So how do we begin to find these solutions? It all starts with a clear and clearly articulated challenge statement.

A crucial factor in encouraging organizations to look beyond traditional industry boundaries is to foster a deep understanding of problem-solution fit (you can read more about Problem - Solution fit in my last article here) and that means a deep understanding of the Problem. By guiding problem holders to dig deep into the nuances of the problems they aim to address, we expand their perspective. Once a comprehensive grasp of the problems are established, new pathways for solutions organically emerge. To do this you must broaden the collective thinking to the point where solutions from other industries become not just viable but often the most effective approach. My favorite quote on this subject is that “people don’t need a ¼ inch drill bit, they need a ¼ inch hole, and really they don’t need a ¼ hole, they need to hang a picture and when framed in that context, a command strip is more effective at solving the problem.”

So how do we do this? It’s easy, just continuously ask "why" or “why does this matter to your customer” to peel back the layers of the initial problem statements to reveal underlying causes or first principles. Ok this is actually much harder than it sounds but when organizations are guided through exercises to distill their challenges into first principles and more universal problem statements, a transformation occurs, resulting in several benefits:

  1. Expanding Solution Horizons: By elevating the problem discussion beyond industry-specific issues, the range of potential solutions widens remarkably.
  2. Universal Problem Statements: Restating the issues into more universal terms unlocks innovative approaches and solutions previously unseen.
  3. Enhanced Solution Fit and Success Probability: This reframing leads to solutions that are not only more fitting but also stand a higher chance of successfully being adopted and integrated and thus resolving the underlying issues.
  4. Increased Buy-In: These solutions are and are perceived as more novel and thus receive increased buy-in across the organization when moving towards adoption.

The critical lesson here is the power of abstracting the problem. By pulling back from the immediate and specific issues and reinterpreting them into broader, more universally applicable challenges, we can tap into a richer vein of solutions. This approach not only broadens the scope of potential innovations but also increases the alignment and effectiveness of the solutions we pursue.

The art of crafting challenge statements that are both broad enough to inspire innovative thinking and specific enough to be actionable is crucial. These statements serve as beacons, guiding both internal and external innovation efforts towards solutions that are not bound by conventional industry norms. By framing challenges in a way that invites diverse perspectives, organizations unlock innovative solutions that transcend traditional boundaries, fostering a more expansive and inclusive approach to problem-solving.

Turning lofty ambitions into tangible results begins with understanding that innovation isn’t just about flashy gadgets or the latest buzzwords. It’s about solving real problems for real people. This means rolling up our sleeves, listening intently, and sometimes realizing that the solution isn’t a high-tech wonder but perhaps something as simple and elegant as a command strip instead of a hole in the wall.

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Jon Nordby is managing partner at Anthropy Partners, a Houston-based investment firm, and professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Houston.

A new program within Rice University's Executive Education school will foster education for corporate innovation. Photo courtesy of Rice

New program at Rice University to educate corporate leaders on innovation

tables have turned

As important as it is to foster innovation among startups, there's another side of the equation that needs to be addressed, and a new program at Rice University plans to do exactly that.

Executive Education at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, which creates peer-based learning and professional programs for business leaders, has created a new program called Corporate Innovation. The program came about as Executive Education, which has existed since the '70s, has evolved over the past few years to create courses and programs that equip business leaders with key management tools in a holistic way.

"We realized we need to open the innovation box," says Zoran Perunovic, director of Executive Education and is also a member of the Innovation Corridor committee and a mentor at TMCx.

The program, which is open for registration and will take place September 28-30, will flip the script on how innovation is normally discussed and observed and instead take a holistic approach to innovation in a corporate setting.

"In the innovation space, you have two lines — one is the entrepreneurial and the other is happening in large, established organizations," Perunovic tells InnovationMap. "The mechanisms of innovation within in those companies are different than the entrepreneurial."

The course's professor is Jing Zhou, Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology – Organizational Behavior, and she says that when people think "innovation" they think of startups or technology. However, when it comes to innovation at the corporate level, it's so much more than that.

"In the past, we think about corporate innovation, we think about technological advancements. Because we have so many world-class organizations in Houston, we feel like we are doing a good job," Zhou says.

"Innovation definitely includes technology, but it also involves new business models, new way of meeting customers, new work processes — everything we do in a large corporation, there's always a better way of doing it. That's our definition of our corporate innovation."

Zoran Perunovic (left) anf Jing Zhou created the Corporate Innovation program housed in Rice's Executive Education department. Photos courtesy of Rice

Zhou and Perunovic designed the program to target business professionals from all areas of the corporate world.

"People, managers, professionals, executives in all functional areas of business can benefit from this program," Zhou says. "We don't teach to just one function area. We teach the fundamental principles of how to drive innovation and broaden the cognitive space."

Perunovic concurs with his colleague and adds that, "everyone is relevant — that's the future of innovation." Another aspect of the program that's forward thinking is the idea of cross-industry innovation collaboration.

"In all our programs, especially this one, we are not encouraging members from one type of industry to join. We want diversity of industry," Perunovic says.

The program has an advisory board comprised of business leaders in Houston. The program's board is made up of:

  • Tanya Acevedo, chief technology officer of Houston Airport System
  • Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures
  • Gareth Burton, vice president of technology at American Bureau of Shipping
  • David Hatrick, vice president of innovation at Huntsman Advanced Materials
  • Roberta L. Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist

Industry, position, and company notwithstanding, the program has value across the board in Houston, now more than ever.

"Innovation is no longer optional for large organizations," Zhou says. "It's required in whatever you do, and whatever space you're competing in."

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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.