Investor Jason Calacanis lent his time and expertise to seven Houston startups. Photo via twitter.com/houex

Imagine having to pitch your company to a famed investor who has made investments in over 200 companies — seven of which achieved unicorn status. Now, imagine having to do that onstage in front of an audience — in person and virtually viewing.

That was seven Houston entrepreneurs' morning on March 4 during Houston Tech Rodeo. Jason Calacanis heard from the founders and gave his feedback on their business models, as well as general pitch advice. While some of his notes were in the realm of constructive criticism, he stayed pretty positive — for the most part.

"If you're a founder, you're signing up for a 70 percent failure. It's basically a suicide mission, except you don't actually die. You just hit the reset button and go again," Calacanis says to the crowd.

Calacanis also has a great deal of optimism for the region itself, noting on the potential of the innovation ecosystem, and, as an aside, the local basketball team.

"There's no reason Houston as big as a center as Austin has become," Calacanis says. "All it takes is for some of the rich people to say, 'instead of investing in some bond or Wall Street somewhere where they don't know what's going on and to take it and pay it forward with an entrepreneur."

Here are the seven Houston companies that pitched fir Calacanis, as well as some of his feedback.

Topper Luciani, CEO and founder of Goodfair

goodfair

Houston-based Goodfair sells bundles of used clothing at a low cost. Photo courtesy of Goodfair

Kicking things off was Topper Luciani, CEO and founder of Goodfair, CEO and founder of Goodfair. On a mission to counteract the pollution of fast fashion, the company, which launched in 2018, sells second-hand clothing using "mystery shopping," shipping all of their clothing in variety packs chosen according to a customer's size and taste. This eliminates the cost of photographing, measuring, lowering the price for both the customer and the company.

"Climate chance is Gen Z's crisis, and they are our customers," Luciani tells Calacanis and the crowd.

Goodfair expects to do $5 million in revenue this year, as well as raise its seed round. Calacanis give Luciani advice to make sure he answers the question of, in a world with recycled clothing stores and a growing need for environmentalism, why now?

Katharine Forth, CEO and founder of Zibrio

Balancing is important throughout your life, and Zibrio has the tools and tips for you to use to stay centered. Pexels

From NASA to your bathroom floor — Katharine Forth, CEO and founder of Zibrio, has found a new way to track balance. With her company, people can have the everyday ability to figure out how balanced they are on scale of 1 to 10. The scale gathers data from your weight, your postural control, your muscles and other factors to calculate the rating.

But Forth's business is split between two products — a consumer-focused scale and a scale made for medical professionals to use. Calacanis says it's one scale too many and to focus on just one for now. He compared the company to if Uber tried to launch its upgrades its made over the years all at once.

"You're coming out of the gate with UberPool and UberBlack. Big mistake," he says.

Amy Gross, founder and CEO, VineSleuth Inc

vinesleuth

Houston-based VineSleuth created a custom algorithm to match you with new wines based on wines you've had in the past. Courtesy of VineSleuth

Picking wine out isn't rocket science, and yet, "confusion is costing the industry billions," says Amy Gross, founder and CEO, VineSleuth Inc. The company's custom algorithm is backed by research from sensory scientists at Cornell University, and relies on both data collection and machine learning to determine specific wines that will match an individual customer's tastes.

The B2B approach has launched in a few restaurants around town and, as of this week, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's Wine Garden. But how Gross is currently approaching business isn't exactly attractive to investors.

"The business comes across as a small niche business, which is going to cause investors to run," Calacanis explains.

His advice is to use the technology to prove to restaurants and bars that they are overpaying for their wines.

Panos Moutafis, CEO and co-founder, Zenus Biometrics

Zenus Biometrics uses its facial recognition software to provide seamless check in at events around the world. Courtesy of Zenus Biometrics

What started as a convenient way to check into events is now a facial recognition solution to event data. Zenus Biometrics can scan faces of event attendees for security — but also for data analytics, says Panos Moutafis, CEO and co-founder.

While the tech company has already evolved, Calacanis saw even more potential for the software, comparing it to the iPhone. The device is used more for a camera and app usage than an actual phone.

"As technologists we build something," Calacanis says. "Then we find out what people actually use it for."

While based in Houston now, Moutafis mentions that he will soon be relocated to Austin.

Safir Ali, co-founder and CEO of Hamper

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Safir Ali grew up in his parents' dry cleaning store, and he observed that the biggest inconvenience for customers was them trying to make it to the cleaners to get their clothes before it closed. His company, Hamper, aims to provide a solution as "the Red Box of dry cleaning." Customers can deposit their dry cleaning in a kiosk in their office building, and it will be delivered to pick-up locations.

Calacanis liked that Ali has a background in the dry cleaning business."It takes somebody who is so obsessed that they aren't going to give up," he says, adding that he liked Ali's story.

"When you have something new – something that's novel, you could get a lot of attention," Calacanis says. "For things that are not novel, you have to use performance. You have to use the metrics."

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO, Trumbull Unmanned

Trumbull Unmanned equips energy companies with data-retrieving drones. Photo via trumbullunmanned.com

Trumbull Unmanned has created an enterprise software company to analyze data collected from drones flying over oil and gas sites. The technology allows workers to maintain a safe distance and still collect the information needed. Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO, has secured some impressive contracts with companies, including Exxon.

Calacanis asked Gibbens about those contracts and how much they were usually for, but didn't like her first answer.

"Every answer we get as investors is, 'It depends,'" Calacanis says, explaining a "pro tip" for entrepreneurs. " You want to lead with some examples and get some ground truth. Sell us that ground truth."

Calacanis' next piece of advice for Gibbens was to add a second set of data collecting technology, such as a moisture sensor or heat sensor, creating two sets of data for clients.

"Being agnostic to how you solve the problem is [a big opportunity]. Also, that becomes an upsell," Calacanis says.

Ksenia Yudina, founder and CEO, UNest

UNest is a tax-free way to save money for your children's education. Photo via unestapp.com

UNest is using user-friendly app technology to set up college funds for millennial parents. And Founder Ksenia Yudina has gotten some great reception, which has caused financial advisers to take note and even reach out. But Calacanis says they are, in a way, the enemy for her product and she needs to not spread out her resources trying to partner with financial advisers.

"Part of being a successful founder is knowing what you need more and what to stay focused on," Calacanis says. "If you remain a product that people like, everyone is going to drown you in opportunities. And as CEO you have to know when to say no."

The Texas Medical Center has contributed to a $16 million round in a TMCx08 member company. Courtesy of TMCx

TMCx company raises $16 million, Exxon scales work with Houston drone startup, and more innovation news

Short stories

With a busy September just days away, the Houston innovation world has seen an uptick in news. Just in case you missed some, here are some short stories from Houston startups — funding, product launches, clinical trials, oh my.

TMC invests in Luma Health's recent $16 million round

Luma Health, a San Francisco-based startup and TMCx08 cohort member, has closed a $16 million Series B round. The Texas Medical Center contributed to the round, along with U.S. Venture Partners and Cisco. PeakSpan Capital lead the series.

The company has a text-first communication platform to ease and automate the provider-patient conversations. The money, per VentureBeat, will go toward scaling up business.

"As we've spent more time with patients, doctors, and healthcare teams across the country, we've seen the disconnect between patients and clinics — patients really struggle to connect with their clinic, and clinics struggle to simply get a hold of their patients," the companies founders write on their website. "The one consistent theme we've heard after now deploying Luma Health at over 300 clinics is: how can we make it easier for our patients to get started on their care journey and connect with us as they map their personal path to healing?"

ExxonMobil scales its arrangement with Houston drone company

Dyan Gibbons

Dyan Gibbons is the CEO of Trumbull Unmanned. Courtesy of Alice

Houston-based Trumbull Unmanned has provided its drone technology to ExxonMobil since 2014. Now, the major energy company is scaling up its involvement with the local company.

Trumbull was recently awarded a five-year Unmanned Aircraft Systems Agreement and now will expand drone data collection and inspections as part of a new contract.

"Trumbull is grateful to serve amazing clients. After conducting data collection and inspections for ExxonMobil in over 25 locations, we are excited to scale operations starting in the Americas," says Trumbull CEO Dyan Gibbens in a release. "We look forward to helping ExxonMobil integrate amazing safety, efficiency, and data-driven technology into their operations."

Houston-founded startup relocates to Austin

Ben Johnson's business idea turned into a growing company making the lives of apartment dwellers easier. Courtesy of Apartment Butler

A company founded in Houston has moved its headquarters to Austin, according to reports. Spruce — formerly known as Apartment Butler — provides luxury services (like dry cleaning, cleaning, and pet services) to apartment complexes.

Founder Ben Johnson told InnovationMap last December that, even though he's raised two rounds of funding from Houston — a $2 million Seed and a $3 million Series A — it was tough to convince venture capital firms from Houston. Houston-based Mercury Fund and Austin-based Capital Factory contributed to both the company's rounds. Princeton, New Jersey-based Fitz Gate Ventures led the Series A round, and the Houston Angel Network contributed too.

"Every single VC I pitched to wanted to require us to move to Austin as a condition to our funding," Johnson tells InnovationMap in a previous article. "I wanted to grow this business in Houston. I thought I was going to have to move to Austin because there wasn't a VC for us here."

Spruce already has a presence in Austin. The company has its services in 35 Austin-area apartment complexes, per the Austin Business Journal, as well as having Austin-based employees. Earlier this year, Spruce expanded its services to Denver, representing the first out-of-state business for the company.

Houston anti-fungal fabric fashion line launches

Accel Lifestyle is a anti-stink, ethically sourced athletic line. Courtesy of Accel

Houston entrepreneur, Megan Eddings, was disappointed with the athleticwear industry. She couldn't find a company that prioritized ethical and sustainable designs that were made with a fabric that wouldn't hold on to that strong, unpleasant sweat smell. So, a chemist by trade, she made her own.

Now, after months and months of work, Eddings has launched her company and the fitness line, Accel Lifestyle. The products are made in the United States in ethical conditions and shipped in 100 percent biodegradable packaging without any plastics involved. The custom-designed fabric — called the Prema™ fabric, which is now patent pending in 120 countries — doesn't hold onto the stink from working out, meaning consumers will be less inclined to throw them away, preventing unnecessary textile waste.

"I founded Accel Lifestyle because, even though there are so many fitness apparel companies today, none of them hit all the boxes on my checklist. I wanted to support a fashionable fitness apparel company that has an ethical supply chain (no sweatshops), and a fabric that doesn't smell. What did I find? Absolutely nothing. And, I wanted to change that," says Eddings in a release. "With my science background and experience working in science labs at University of Virginia and Brown University, it took 2.5 years to create the fabric from scratch, using the most luxurious threads available and a trade secret protected science."

Houston medical device startup releases positive clinical trial results

Photo via nanospectra.com

A Houston medical device company using nanomedicine has released early results in its clinical trials treating prostrate cancer. Nanospectra Biosciences Inc.'s AuroLase technology uses laser-excited gold-silica nanoparticles with various medical imaging tools to focally remove low to intermediate grade tumors within the prostate, according to its study outcomes published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"As the first ultra-focal therapy for prostate cancer, AuroLase has the potential to maximize treatment efficacy while minimizing side effects associated with surgery, radiation, and traditional focal therapies," says David Jorden, CEO of Nanospectra, in a news release. "We are encouraged by the clinical success of our feasibility study to date and look forward to the initiation, potentially next month, of the pivotal study with an expected cumulative treatment population of 100 subjects."

One of the company's co-founders, Naomi J. Halas, is a professor of biophysics at Rice University.

Canadian oil and gas company with a growing presence in Houston named finalist in World Oil awards

Validere, a Canada-based energy logistics company, is expanding in Houston. Courtesy of Validere

While Houston can't completely claim Canadian oil and gas data company Validere, the company, which has a growing presence in the Bayou City, has been named a finalist in a prestigious awards program.

Validere is a finalist in the World Oil Awards' best data management and application solution award. The company is up against technology from the likes of Schlumberger, Halliburton, Siemens, NOV, Baker Hughes, and more,

The company has created a software that allows for real-time data and both artificial and human intelligence insights to improve its clients' quality, trading, and logistics. The company's technology enhances the ability of oil and gas traders to make informed decisions, which currently are made based off unreliable product quality data. Annually, $2 trillion of product moves around the oil and gas industry, and Validere uses the Internet of Things to improve the current standard of decision making.

Of course, the energy capital of the world has been a major city for growth — something co-founder Nouman Ahmad tells InnovationMap in a previous interview.

"As we think about the long-term future of the business, Houston is one of the most important markets for us going forward," Ahmad says.

From closing a million-dollar raise to being tapped by Google to serve on a council, Houston entrepreneurs have been busy. Courtesy of Security Gate

Company closes $1M round, new nonprofit startup hub launches, and more Houston innovation news

Short Stories

Wrapping up March, there's been a lot of innovator and startup news that's slipped through the cracks. From funds closing and incubator applications opening, here's all the news bits you need to know.

SecurityGate closes $1 million fund

Photo via securitygate.io

Houston-based SecurityGate closed its $1 million seed round on March 22. The lead investor was a private investment group in Houston. The startup, a B-to-B, software-as-a-service cybersecurity company, will use the funds to further refine its business and grow its team.

"We're excited our investment team understands the need for digital transformation in the critical infrastructure security space," CEO and co-founder, Ted Gutierrez says.

In February, SecurityGate traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to accept the Game Changers award. Gutierrez said being able to bring home that award really spurred the last leg of the raise.

Impact Hub Houston launches with fundraising campaign

Photo via LinkedIn

Houston's Impact Hub, a nonprofit organization focused on impacting change within the world through startups and technologies, has officially launched. The organization also launched its fundraising campaign called 321 Impact.

Led by Grace Rodriguez, Impact Hub Houston will set up shop in a few "pop-up" locations to truly serve all of the city. The first location will soon be announced, Rodriguez writes online.

Impact Hub Houston also announced a few other projects the organization has launched or is working on:

MassChallenge Texas will open Houston application at kick-off event

Photo via greenstreetdowntown.com

MassChallenge Texas announced its first Houston cohort in January, indicating that applications will open sometime in April. Last week, the zero-equity incubator program revealed that applications will open following an April 10th launch party event. The networking event will be at the Four Seasons in downtown Houston and will take place from 6 to 9 pm. Guests can RSVP here, and startups can begin the application process at masschallenge.org/apply to start their application. The application deadline is May 8, 2019 at noon.

Google taps Houston innovator for AI-focused council

Dyan Gibbons

Courtesy of Alice

Google has selected Houston innovator and founder of Trumbull Unmanned, Dyan Gibbens, as a member of its inaugural Advanced Technology Executive Advisory Council focused on AI. The council will meet with Google's executive leadership quarterly throughout 2019, beginning in April. Kent Walker, senior vice president of Global Affairs at Google, introduced Gibbens, and the fellow council members, in a blog post.

"We hope this effort will inform both our own work and the broader technology sector," writes Walker in the post. "In addition to encouraging members to share generalizable learnings in their ongoing activities, we plan to publish a report summarizing the discussions. Council members represent their individual perspectives, and do not speak for their institutions."

Houston to host nationwide pitch competition finals

Photo via celebrasianconference.com

The country's largest Asian organization is concluding its pitch competition in Houston. The contest, called What's Your Pitch: Innovations Meets the Market, is put on by the United States Pan Asian Chamber of Commerce. Chaired by Diane Yoo, former director of the Rice Angel Network, the semifinal and final rounds will take place in Houston on June 4 and 5, respectively. $100,000 work of cash and prizes is on the line. For more info on the contest, click here.

FutureSight AR selected as the only Texas startup for an international program

future sight AR

Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Houston-based Future Sight AR was selected for Magic Leap's Independent Creators Program in the productivity category and was awarded a grant to continue development. The program, which had over 6,500 applicants, will take place through March and some of April. FutureSight AR, which uses artificial reality to make oil and gas construction workers more productive, is the only startup represented from Texas in the program, says co-founder of the company, Lori-Lee Emshey.

Lyft introduces new programs and opportunities in Houston

Courtesy of Lyft

Lyft will bring or expand three driver-focused programs to the Houston market, the company announced this week.

  • Drivers can opt into Lyft Direct, a bank account with no fees that links to a debit card. Rather than cashing their check from Lyft, drivers can instantly access earnings and even receive points for cash back on specific purchases.
  • Lyft will open a Vehicle Service Center, which is a new and improved version of Lyft Hubs. The idea is to have mechanics work on the vehicles of Lyft drivers at cost, rather than the drivers having to pay full-price for their repairs. Also new to the program is the opportunity to provide mobile repair services for drivers on the go.
  • Lyft announced that Houston will have more locations of the Express Drive program, where Lyft drivers can use a rental car and receive subsidized earnings.

Blockchain entrepreneur profiled by Rice University publication

Courtesy of Topl

Houston-based Topl's co-founder, Kim Raath, was featured in a piece for Rice University as a part of the school's Spotlights on Diversity in Engineering. Her company, Topl, uses blockchain technology to connect the dots on industries — from food to oil and gas. To read the feature of how Raath went from backpacking through developing countries to startup founder, click here.

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Short stories will be a regular roundup on InnovationMap. If your company recently closed on a round, received recognition, or has any news, please email Natalie Harms at natalie@innovationmap.com with the information.

These energy startup leaders are the reason Houston will keep its "energy capital of the world" title. Courtesy images

3 Houston energy innovators to know this week

Who's Who

Houston's known as the energy capital of the world, but it won't stay that way if the city as a whole doesn't work toward innovation. These three professionals started their own companies to improve efficiency and promote ingenuity in their fields. From drones and AI to quicker pipeline data access, this week's three innovators to know are the future of the energy industry.

Lori-Lee Emshey, co-founder of Future Sight AR

Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Growing up the daughter of an oil and gas professional and traveling the world, Lori-Lee Emshey studied journalism and didn't necessarily intend to go into the family business, so to speak. However, that's where she ended up. She was surrounded by innovation and technology in New York working at The Daily Beast, but when she got her first job on an energy construction site, she returned to the antiquated process of pen and paper. The wheels started turning for her.

Future Sight AR is a company that is working on smart device technology for large oil and gas pants, where workers can see — in real time — how to fix a problem or log an issue. The company has done a proof of concept and is looking to do three pilot program as well as a round of funding in early 2019.

Jay Bhatty, CEO and founder of NatGasHub.com

Courtesy of Jay Bhatty

As vice president of energy trading at JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s investment-banking arm, Jay Bhatty felt frustrated by the sluggish nature of natural-gas-trading activities, and he decided to something about it. He founded Houston-based NatGasHub.com in October 2016 to streamline the traditionally complicated processes of moving natural gas from one point to another, and of unearthing data about natural gas pipelines.

After only a little over two years in business, NatGasHub.com already is profitable — a rare feat in the startup world.

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO of Trumbull Unmanned

Courtesy of Alice

Dyan Gibbens maybe have thought her true purpose was serving in the military, but it's lately it's leading her Houston-based drone technology company, Trumbull Unmanned, to great success. While in her doctorate program, the Air Force veteran started the idea using unmanned vehicles to patrol refineries and plants in the energy and utilities sector. The company took flight — her first clients were Chevron and ExxonMobil.

Gibbens juggles motherhood and engineering — among other responsibilities — as her company grows and technology evolves.


Dyan Gibbens translated her Air Force experience with unmanned missiles into a drone services company. Courtesy of Alice

Houston drone company has big business on the horizon

The sky's the limit

Dyan Gibbens found her dream career. She studied engineering, learned to fly at the United States Air Force Academy, went into pilot training, and served as engineering acquisitions officer managing stealth nuclear cruise missiles. She even went on to support Air Force One and Global Hawk UAS engineering and logistics. She dedicated five years to active service before transitioning to the reserves.

"When I went to transition, I learned I was permanently disqualified from ever serving again," Gibbens said. "It was devastating to me, because all I've ever wanted to do was serve."

She went into a doctorate program — she already had her MBA — and was close to finishing up when her drone startup took flight. Trumbull Unmanned provides drone services to the energy sector for various purposes. With her experience as a pilot and managing unmanned missiles, she knew the demand for drones was only growing — and, being from Texas, she knew what industry to focus on.

"I wanted to start a company that uses unmanned systems or drones to improve safety and improve the environment and support energy,"

InnovationMap: What exactly does Trumbull Unmanned do?

Dyan Gibbens: We fly drones in challenging and austere environments to collect and analyze data for the energy sector. We fly across upstream, midstream, and downstream either on or off shore. We focus on three areas: digital transformation, inspection and operations, and technology development and integration.

The types data we collect and analyze could be LiDAR — light detection and ranging — to multispectral — to see the help of different properties — to visible — to perform tech-enabled inspections. We've recently hired inspectors in house as well. On LiDAR, we just hired a subject matter expert.

IM: So, the company is growing. What else is new for Trumbull?

DG: We just signed a few five-year agreements with supermajors. We're excited about that and the new hires. We're starting to do more on communications and situational awareness. We're doing more in energy and now in the government.

IM: What were some early challenges you faced?

DG: We are 100 percent organically funded — from our savings and from client contracts. Our first client was ExxonMobil. Our second client was Chevron. We had to prove ourselves over and over. We had to work hard to earn and then maintain that business. For us, it was also adjusting to a fluctuation in cash flow. It was going from a steady job to betting on yourself, and we didn't know anyone in Houston.

IM: What's the state of drone technology in the field?

DG: We've continued to see a hybrid approach toward services. Meaning, there's an in-house component and outsourced component. On the outsourced component, we intend to provide that for our clients. On the in-house component, while we don't train the masses, we do train our clients on request. We've promoted that model from the beginning. We think it makes sense that they are trained to do something simple, like take a picture, but for some of the more difficult projects, they outsource to us.

We're going to continue to see increased autonomy. There are really some amazing things already in autonomy, but there's still a lot of challenges flying in dense environments such as refineries and plants.

IM: How is Houston's startup scenes for veterans? What resources are out there?

DG: The way I see it is veterans have made a commitment to serve us, so we should make a commitment to serve them. That's my philosophy. Large companies have different programs, which is great, and there are entities such as Combined Arms, which has full services for transitioning veterans where you can go in and one-stop shop to get support from everything like getting connected to the VA to help working through PTSD to getting help transitioning to business. There are also really good Service Academy networks. More and more opportunities exist to step up to serve veterans.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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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.