From a former astronaut to growing software company leaders, here are three innovators to know. Courtesy photos

This week's set of innovators to know are familiar with pivoting careers. All three had successful careers — from energy finance to space exploration — before jumping into a new field. And each set of prior experience prepared them for what they are doing today.

Alex Colosivschi, founder and CEO of Currux

Courtesy of Currux

Alex Colosivschi had a successful career in energy finance before he started his company, Currux. He was walking in his Rice Village neighborhood when the idea came to him. He realized that despite the green surroundings, he was choked by the smell of engine exhaust.

"I started with thinking about the future of energy and how the industry will adapt to a world of electric, autonomous and shared mobility, and the need to reduce CO2 emissions," he says.

Tim Kopra, partner at Blue Bear Capital

Courtesy of Blue Bear Capital

It might not be easy to connect the dots between Tim Kopra's NASA career and his current role at Blue Bear Capital, but for Kopra, it makes perfect sense.

"On face value, it may sound like an odd match, taking someone with a tech and operational background and putting them in venture, but quite frankly it feels very familiar to me because my career has really been focused on working on complex technology and operations with very small teams," Kopra says. "It's not just a theoretical understanding of the technology, but understanding how to use the technology and how it works."

Stuart Morstead, co-founder and COO of Arundo Analytics

Courtesy of Arundo Analytics

Stuart Morstead spent the bulk of his career in consulting, so he knows the importance of understanding the needs an industry has. He co-founded Arundo Analytics to address the analytical needs energy companies have on a regular basis.

Morstead says that most industrial companies that encounter issues with operations such as equipment maintenance "lack the data science and software capabilities to drive value from insights into their daily operations."

Arundo is growing — both from a funding standpoint as well as through its staff. The Houston company has big plans for its 2019.

This entrepreneur says the future of driving is using smart tech on a subscription-based business model. Pexels

This company’s machine learning programs are making driving in Houston safer — and cheaper

Vroom, Vroom

Two thousand years ago, in ancient Rome, the primary mode of transportation was an intelligent one: the horse. The Latin word "currus" was the inspiration for Alex Colosivschi when it came to naming his business, Currux.

"We chose this name because we believe in a future where cars and actually most modes of transportation will be intelligent, like horses," he explains. "And so it's a great name considering our focus on the future of mobility and machine learning."

The change from "s" to "x" at the end of the word allowed Colosivschi to trademark the name.

The entrepreneur, whose career was focused on energy finance until starting the new company in 2017, came up with the idea for Currux while walking in his Rice Village neighborhood. He realized that despite the green surroundings, he was choked by the smell of engine exhaust.

"I started with thinking about the future of energy and how the industry will adapt to a world of electric, autonomous and shared mobility, and the need to reduce CO2 emissions," he says.

His goal is an ambitious one: With Currux, Colosivschi hopes to not only reduce the cost and carbon footprint of owning a car, but also the accident rates. How? Currux itself is a long-term automobile subscription service. Colosivschi says to think of it as a long-term rental or a more flexible version of a lease. The car is delivered through an app and there is no commitment at the end of the subscription. Regular maintenance is included and the company is on the way to providing insurance, too.

It's also possible to share a car or fleet of cars with friends, assuring that your vehicle is only touched by people you know. This will be even more true when autonomous driving technology allows the car to go from subscriber to subscriber without a human in between.

"With the advent of digital shopping, we believe subscriptions will become the primary way that people get a car," Colosivschi predicts.

This will save clients money, but the ultimate goal is much bigger. Colosivschi wants to reduce air pollution. This will happen naturally with having fewer, mostly electric, cars on the road thanks to vehicle sharing, but another technology will also aid in the fight.

Currux Vision, which closely followed Currux in development, is a smartphone-based driver assistance program. It will help lower fuel consumption and reduce accident rates by "proactively coaching the driver on best driving practices," says Colosivschi.

"Just by slowing down and driving in a less aggressive manner, we can significantly reduce fuel consumption and more importantly prevent accidents from happening."

If you've driven or ridden in a Tesla, you've seen similar technology in action. Computer vision creates accident warnings and tracks how you handle your vehicle on the road. Yep, it's AI for your phone, which also incorporates GPS tracking, navigation and driver profile scoring.

"This set of functionalities normally require three or four different types of hardware and software systems and many thousands of dollars in expense per each car," explains Colosivschi.

But Currux Vision only requires that the user install the app, have a car-mounted phone holder with an unobstructed view of the road, and pay $4.99 each month for the technology.

Both these apps were created by Currux's own technical team, based mostly in Ukraine. As the company expands, Colosivschi has plans to significantly grow the Galleria-area Houston team, which is currently just a few employees strong.

But Colosivschi is ready for big growth. Currently, Currux is available only in Houston, but other U.S. cities will follow soon. As an energy industry lifer, the entrepreneur is also primed for significant changes not only to how we drive, but how we consume energy.

"The age of the internal combustion engine and automobile ushered in the age of oil. The age of lithium ion batteries, machine learning and digitization of transaction mediums similarly will have profound effects for both transportation and energy sectors," he predicts. He's confident that Currux can grow with those sea changes. And he's ready to help transform the world, starting with Houston.

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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

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.