The funding will go toward created a summer program called the University of Houston Cardiovascular Undergraduate Research Experience, or UH-CURE. Photo via UH.edu

University of Houston professors have received a nearly $800,000 grant to create a new summer program that will support diverse future researchers.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute provided $792,900 in grant funding to Bradley McConnell, professor of pharmacology at the UH College of Pharmacy, and Tho Tran, research assistant professor of chemistry at the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

The funding will go toward created a summer program called the University of Houston Cardiovascular Undergraduate Research Experience, or UH-CURE. Ten undergraduate students per year will be selected for five years in cardiovascular research across disciplinary lines.

"We are so grateful to be able to provide talented students across the U.S. an opportunity to experience our excellent cardiovascular research environment,” Tran says in a news release. “We want UH-CURE participants to gain confidence in their research abilities through our hands-on approach and the skillset to navigate future challenges through our professional training.”

The goal is to increase students’ interest in cardiovascular research, and students have the opportunity to receive a $6,000 stipend, travel to a globally recognized cardiovascular research conference, and take part in on-campus housing and a food allowance. The summer program will also try to develop research skills, increase awareness of transdisciplinary research, promote diversity and collaborations, cultivate transferable skills necessary for succeeding in graduate school and help facilitate undergraduate students to pursue further training in cardiovascular research.

The program will integrate students into a research lab where they will learn research skills, data analysis, and research integrity. The program will be under the mentorship of a faculty member from across UH’s colleges, and include workshop and enrichment activities.

McConnell and Tran previously formed the American Heart Association-funded UH-HEART pilot program, which focused on cardiovascular research. They expanded on that initiative with UH-CURE, which includes cardiovascular research across disciplinary lines from community engagement and population-based research to basic, translational, and applied research. UH-CURE also helps prepare for careers in cardiovascular research.

“We all know that a diverse environment leads to a much better generation of ideas and solutions,” Tran adds. “We hope to bring that strength to the future of cardiovascular research through our students.”

Tho Tran (left) and Bradley McConnell are professors at UH. Photo via UH.edu

Houstonian Denise Hamilton is coming out with a book she hopes helps leaders reach beyond inclusivity. Photo courtesy of WatchHerWork

Houston innovator's new book to help business leaders be 'authentically successful,' move past just inclusion

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 220

Denise Hamilton says she's been used to looking around and realizing she's the only woman or African American in the room, and for the past nine years, she's been providing resources and education to trailblazing women like her. Now, she wants to prepare current and future leaders on how to go beyond inclusivity and work toward indivisibility.

Hamilton's book, "Indivisible: How to Forge Our Differences into a Stronger Future," publishes February 6 from Countryman Press. She explains that the book comes from years of her on personal experiences, as well as inspiration from the women she's met with her company, WatchHerWork, multimedia digital platform providing advice and resources for professional women.

"I've learned a lot of lessons about what skills work, what behaviors are not intuitive, and built WatchHerWork with the intention of creating a space where people can get all of that advice — and juicy goodness — so that they can learn what they needed to do to be authentically successful," Hamilton says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"This led to me being brought in as a speaker, and ultimately has led to me becoming an author," she continues. "It's always shocking when people want to listen to what you want to say. It's unbelievable."

Hamilton explains that the book is relevant to anyone who leads people — in any way. She says she avoids jargon in her book, and instead focused on timeless, relatable advice and thought leadership.

"It's not a current events book; it's a people book," Hamilton says. "There are a lot of examples that are simple and easy to understand and timeless. I think those are the ways we get a principle and then extrapolate it into a current event — the storm of the day."

While the past few years have been tumultuous, divisive, and full of friction, she explains that the book will call on people to move through the world like owners not renters. She says we need to continue to make the world around us better, rather than leave it to someone else to worry about, and this especially pertains to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

DEI initiatives, as Hamilton explains, are a set of tools and practices, but reaching and tracking progress is a huge challenge and opportunity.

"We have to be careful that we don't use easy metrics to determine if we're being authentically successful," she says. "This is hard work, and it's OK to have challenging, higher-level goals that push us to do better and be better."

A proud Houstonian, Hamilton says doing this type of work makes sense in Houston — one of the most diverse cities in the country.

"I think it's easy to talk about diversity in a vacuum and theoretically, and Houston lives it every single day," she says. "We're doing it while other people are talking about it. There are some great lessons to be learned from this environment, and there are some opportunities here we have to take advantage of in Houston."

Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc., joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss COVID-19's affect on her business and fostering diversity at startups. Photo courtesy of Medley Inc.

Houston founder calls for business leaders to 'make room for diverse voices'

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 70

Last year was one of quick pivots and tech solutions for Ashley Small and her company's clients. Small — the CEO and founder of Medley Inc., a Houston-based branding and public relations firm — works with both for-profit and nonprofit entities to tell their stories, and of course 2020 had its challenges in doing so. But they weren't anything Small, her team, and technology couldn't overcome.

Small founded Medley over 12 years ago, and for the past three of those years, her team has been completely virtual. She shares on the Houston Innovators podcast that this give her team a headstart on being able to find and quickly adopt quick tech solutions — but last year's shutdown also meant navigating this for all her clients.

"The biggest obstacle we had to overcome was figuring out what the best technology was for each client," Small says. "Where the learning curve has been is understanding all the available resources out there and understanding how offline experiences can help audiences connect online."

Founded in Houston, Medley has grown to the Los Angeles and Chicago markets over the years — and Small says that was intentional. An Oklahoma native, Small fell in love with Houston's diversity when she attended Texas Southern University, and sought out other diverse markets to expand her business. And, as a Black female founder, she fosters an inclusive community at her company — and wants to remind her fellow business owners how imperative it is to running an innovative company.

"Innovation is actually impossible without diversity," Small says, adding that when you bring different people to the table, you get new ways of thinking. "A part of this is also being really open minded to the fact that you are going to hear ideas that sound and look different. Be open to that, because that is 100 percent the point."

Small knows early-stage companies aren't always able to hire a bunch of people from diverse backgrounds right from the start, but there are other ways to surround yourself with diverse ideas.

"Make room for diverse voices -- and you may have to be a bit creative," Small says.

Medley's team also realizes that not every startup can afford to bring on an in-house or third-party PR team, but the company has a few options for startups, such as a three-month retainer to start as well as a series of workshops available online for as low as $19.

Small discusses more about how she's honoring Black History Month with her team and the evolution the PR and media industries have seen over the past decade on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The Equity Innovation Center Powered by Reliant will have online resources as well as an interactive learning lab at Tellepsen Family Downtown YMCA. Photo courtesy of Urban Land Institute Houston

YMCA of Greater Houston announces equity-focused innovation center backed by Reliant

it's fun to innovate at the

Houston is the most diverse city in the nation, and the YMCA of Greater Houston is looking to do its part to promote equity innovation by opening a new center.

The Equity Innovation Center Powered by Reliant will be the first of its kind in the region, and it will operate as a space for Houstonians to gather and collaborate.

"The YMCA of Greater Houston vows to stand with our brothers and sisters who are made to feel less safe by the many recent incidents – fighting for health equity in the face of the inequities being laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and unjust killings," says Stephen Ives, president and CEO, YMCA of Greater Houston, in a press release. "The Y will continue expanding and strengthening its commitment to combat racism, bias, prejudice and inequalities while fighting for justice."

The center will provide resources and activities so that visitors and collaborators can "walk away with a solid learning or unlearning" of social justice issues that are prominent in both Houston and nationally.

Rolling out in three phases, the project's first step is to foster conversations, consulting, and online trainings regarding systemic racial inequities. The next two phases will include setting up an interactive learning lab at Tellepsen Family Downtown YMCA, which would come to fruition by early next year.

The project is made possible by Reliant, a partner of the YMCA of Greater Houston.

"At Reliant, we respect, recognize and celebrate that our differences shape us, and that diversity and inclusion make us stronger. We're committed to powering change and supporting progress in the places where we live and work," says Elizabeth Killinger, president at Reliant, in the release. "By powering the Equity Innovation Center, we hope to further strengthen Houston so we can harness our full potential and make lasting change for future generations."

Reliant has donated $100,000 to the project, which will be distributed in $50,000 commitments over two years. The sum is a part of Reliant and NRG's "Powering Change" initiative, which has committed $1 million to go to organizations that combat racial inequities, injustice, and related violence, according to the release.

"We are grateful Reliant is joining our efforts to implement lasting and meaningful change within our community and beyond. We know that when we work as one, we move people and communities forward," Ives says.

Stephen Ives (left) is the president and CEO of YMCA of Greater Houston, and Elizabeth Killinger is president of Reiliant. Images courtesy

The Ion has tapped DivInc. as a partner. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion announces partnership with nonprofit to serve Houston's diverse entrepreneurs

diving into diversity

Houston is ranked the No. 1 diverse city in the nation, and a local organization has forged a new partnership to make sure that diversity is represented within the city's innovation ecosystem.

The Ion, an innovation hub currently rising in Midtown Sears Building, and DivInc, a Texas nonprofit, have agreed to partner to advance diversity among Houston entrepreneurs. It's Austin-based DivInc's first Houston initiative, according to a news release.

"Our experience equipping diverse entrepreneurs with strategies to create exceptional companies, coupled with the Ion's enthusiasm and thoughtful approach to building an inclusive space where entrepreneurs from all walks of life can thrive is a winning combination," says Preston L. James, founder and CEO of DivInc, in the release.

"No matter where they are in their entrepreneur journey, we want all Houstonians to know DivInc is here to help you achieve your biggest dreams."

Since its founding in 2016, DivInc has worked to provide over 60 founders and more than 50 tech companies with resources and support for growth. Locally, DivInc is already working on programming to extend its reach to Houston entrepreneurs, including a kick-off event at The Ion on Tuesday, March 3, at 5:30 pm.

"As The Ion looked for a partner to provide best practices and resources to our local business communities and leaders that have historically been overlooked, we knew our partner needed to be ambitious, thoughtful and encouraging, but also have a record of success and experience working shoulder-to-shoulder with entrepreneurs," says Deanea LeFlore, senior director of The Ion, in the release.

"Our efforts and relationship with DivInc will do just that. We can't wait to help our stakeholders take their businesses to new heights and further demonstrate Houston is the best city in America for diverse entrepreneurs to thrive."

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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.