This week's Houston innovators to know are hoping to make an impact. Courtesy photos

Starting off a new — hopefully drier — week in Houston, these three Houston innovators to know are looking to make an impact. From using tech for good to creating a women's movement in Texas business, these three Houstonians are on a roll.

Cristen Reat, co-founder and program director at BridgingApps

BridgingApps, a program backed by Easter Seals of Greater Houston, uses technology like iPads to help provide services for children and adults with disabilities — as well as for veterans — and their families. Courtesy of BridgingApps

At the cusp of the tablet generation, Cristen Reat saw her child, who had down syndrome, and this convenient emerging technology and connected the dots. She helped start a support group in a therapy clinic where many parents were interested about why mobile devices and apps were so engaging to their children.

"We were just amazed about how our children with different types of disabilities were engaged with the devices, were able to communicate with the devices, and were making big strides in their therapy," says Reat.

BridgingApps was founded by Reat and Sami Rahman in 2010, both seeking to help their children grow. The program became a part of Easter Seals of Greater Houston in 2011. The website currently boasts over 3,000 apps which users can sort through by category, age, price, skill, grade level, mobile device, and more. The apps are also able to benefit and treat veterans and their families. Read more about Reat and the BridgingApps program here.

Charley Donaldson, co-founder and COO of CaringBand

CaringBand is using a simple technology to better connect family and friends to the ones they love. Courtesy of CaringBand

When Charley Donaldson's mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, he and his wife knew they were in for a tough time. What they didn't realize was how important communication was going to be with each other. The ability to check in with loved ones frequently is tough — whether it's a good day or a bad day, people are busy and picking up the phone can be time consuming.

"It's like, you want to show people that you care about them, but you don't want to interrupt their day, or you don't want to be a burden to them if they aren't up to company," Donaldson says.

CaringBand is a light-up bracelet that's Bluetooth enabled, and connects to a mobile app. A person gives the bracelet to a loved one, who then pairs it with his or her smartphone. App users can send and receive pre-set messages of encouragement to and from other app users. Those wearing a CaringBand bracelet get alerted by a blinking light or vibration that lets them know someone is thinking about them. The wearer then reads these encouraging messages on the CaringBand app when convenient and with no need to respond. Read more about the Houston company connecting loved ones.

Ludmila Golovine, president and CEO of MasterWord Services Inc. and a founding member of Women in Localization's Texas Chapter

Ludmila Golovine, president and CEO of MasterWord Services Inc. and a founding member of newly formed Women in Localization's Texas Chapter, writes on the importance of localization. Courtesy of Golovine

Your business message is only as good as the receiver's ability to understand it. Localization is extremely important for business growth, and Ludmila Golovine, president and CEO of MasterWord Services Inc., wrote a guest article for InnovationMap about this importance as it pertains to the digital age.

"Opening a website or an app that wasn't intended for you can feel a lot like being lost in another country: you cannot understand the street signs, everything is different, and you don't even know how to ask a question of where to go," she writes.

Golovine is a founding member of newly formed Women in Localization's Texas Chapter. The organization is hosting its first Houston panel and networking event on Tuesday, September 24, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Station Houston. Read Golovine's guest article here.

BridgingApps, a program backed by Easter Seals of Greater Houston, uses technology like iPads to help provide services for children and adults with disabilities — as well as for veterans — and their families. Courtesy of BridgingApps

Houston nonprofit optimizes technology for special needs treatment and diagnoses

Using tech for good

When the first iPad was released in April of 2010, tech accessibility changed in more ways than mobile checkouts or on-the-go streaming.

The interface of the device is built around the multi-touch screen, which became a game changing component in special needs therapy and sparked the founding of BridgingApps, a program part of Easter Seals Greater Houston.

The program provides access to educational and therapeutic tools to parents, teachers, and therapists to use these mobile devices and apps to target and improve cognitive and physical development in children and adults with disabilities.

"I am the parent of a child with multiple disabilities; my son was born with Down syndrome," says Cristen Reat, co-founder and program director at BridgingApps.

Reat tells InnovationMap that she helped start a support group in a therapy clinic where many parents were interested about why mobile devices and apps were so engaging to their children.

"We were just amazed about how our children with different types of disabilities were engaged with the devices, were able to communicate with the devices, and were making big strides in their therapy," says Reat.

BridgingApps was founded by Reat and Sami Rahman in 2010, both seeking to help their children grow. The program became a part of Easter Seals of Greater Houston in 2011. The website currently boasts over 3,000 apps which users can sort through by category, age, price, skill, grade level, mobile device, and more. The apps are also able to benefit and treat veterans and their families.

"I was amazed at how quickly my son was able to do things independently with these touch screens that he was not able to do with traditional computers," Reat tells InnovationMap.

The Easter Seals Greater Houston organization was recently awarded a $15,000 grant from the Comcast Foundation as part of the Comcast NBCUniversal Assistive Technology Grant Fund, expand the available equipment used in the community technology labs with new equipment such as the TobiiDynavox EyeMobile Mini Classic Eye Gaze system that includes new software called Look To Learn and SnapCore First, and the AbleNet Latitude Mounting Arm that holds an iPad, Kindle, or other tablet and mounts to beds, wheelchairs, and tabletops.

The nonprofit offers three assistive technology services labs across the Houston area, in Bellaire, the Woodlands, and Stafford. According to the website, each lab has open lab days that the public can access without an appointment to explore a variety of assistive technology, including adapted toys and switches, specialized software and computer equipment, communication devices, and mobile devices and apps. Workshops and trainings are also available.

"The whole idea of BridgingApps is a shortcut, so that you don't have to Google search every day," says Reat. "It's basically the Yelp of special needs apps where you can type in a diagnosis, a skill, something you're looking for, and you'll come up with a video, instructions, and summary that helps people figure out what can help them today."

The organization was also awarded a $75,000 grant by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, which, according to a news release, will help the nonprofit serve 50 individuals that are veterans and or current military as well as their family members through services such as digital trainings through app reviews and videos, face-to-face counseling and counseling via tele-health, especially for those without transportation or living in rural areas.

BridgingApps currently has a team of two full-time and seven part-time employees. The nonprofit hosts an annual fundraiser each Spring called Walk With Me. The next walk is scheduled for April 25 at the Houston Zoo.
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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.