By harnessing the power of AI, Sibme will boost the effectiveness of instructional coaching and save teachers’ time as they receive data and feedback in real time on how they conduct their classroom lessons. Photo via Getty Images

Houston edtech startup taps into AI to improve classroom engagement

training for educators

Not many adages stand the test of time quite like this one: to be the best, learn from the best.

Sage advice, which is why Houston-based Sibme, the learning engagement platform designed by teachers, is introducing an all-new artificial intelligence tool to transform professional learning for teachers.

By harnessing the power of AI, Sibme will boost the effectiveness of instructional coaching and save teachers’ time as they receive data and feedback in real time on how they conduct their classroom lessons. This is accomplished by providing teachers with more opportunities for meaningful, in-depth conversations with their instructional coaches through automatically generated quantitative data on video and audio recordings of teachers’ classroom instruction.

“When David Wakefield founded the company in 2013, it was primarily based on something that was pretty difficult to do at the time, which was just being able to record and upload video in classrooms,” COO TJ Hoffman tells InnovationMap. “Sibme was the first mobile-first technology that made it possible to upload a video longer than an hour into the cloud. And that was sort of our original approach in the classrooms.

Wakefield and Hoffman were former teachers, with former working in Houston ISD, and the latter in Pasadena ISD.

"We recognized that a lot of the ways in which teachers are trained in traditional workshops, or trainings like modules online and stuff like that, weren't in any way improving our ability to do our jobs as teachers," Hoffman says. “And the thing that really did make it easy for us to grow as teachers was watching other teachers teach and being able to ask them questions and that sort of stuff.

"It's hard to do in schools because teachers are in classrooms with kids all day long," Hoffman continues. "There's no time for them to leave and go watch someone else do their job. So that idea of recording a video and annotating it with comments and asking feedback three minutes in, like ‘Hey, why did you ask that question of that student that way?’ That was something that we originally did, and that's been the primary driver of our growth over the last ten years.”

Efficient education for the educators

With the tagline, “making every moment a teachable moment,” Sibme has broken through as the go-to learning engagement platform for professional development, replete with coaching, cohort-based professional learning communities and peer-to-peer collaboration.

“The thing that we've recognized and have worked on for the last couple of years is, if I record and upload a 45-minute lesson and share it with the teacher next door or the principal at the school or somebody else, they've got to watch it for 45 minutes and that's time-consuming as well,” says Hoffman. “Our newest iteration, our AI tools, make it easier to identify key moments in a video that are related to things that a teacher can do better to reach kids more equitably and more effectively so that they're learning better.”

Not surprisingly, the creators of Sibme are excited about the AI component, which is able to watch the videos, transcribe them and identify key moments where the teacher asks important questions in those videos.

“Now with the AI tool, I can go straight to those moments and see which kids I have called on, what kinds of questions I have asked them, who responded and who hasn't, so it helps teachers develop better strategies for reaching kids.”

Practice makes progress, according to the Sibme platform, which embeds training and collaboration in every workday, engaging employees while building a stronger community of learners.

“Sibme builds off the same principle of athletes,” adds Wakefield. “I can watch a million Astros games, but I'm not going to be a better baseball player until I pick up a bat or pick up a glove and actually start playing and then get coaching on it, right? It's the same principle for training teachers. Teaching is a complex activity. I can't just show you how to teach or tell you how to teach and then you can do it.

“You've got to get up and teach, and then you've got to get really concrete feedback the same way that a great coach provides concrete feedback to a player. Hold the bat a little bit differently or, you know, lean on your left hip. Those real kind of small changes, it's the same thing with a teacher. You know, walk to the left side of the room. Being able to actually provide that feedback on the teacher's work rather than saying, here's how you should teach, which is what training typically does, right? Training is just theory, not actual practice. This is giving teachers an opportunity to rehearse and then get coached by a real coach, whether that coach is someone with a formal title of instructional coach or just the teacher next door.”

Making the network work

Sibme’s novel, yet simple approach to improving teachers via their peers has proven to be much more effective than the typical training methods of the past.

Currently, Sibme works with more than 1,000 innovative schools, districts, and institutions – including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ASCD, Scholastic, the University of Texas, and the Houston Independent School District.

“At this point, I believe we're in 40 states,” says Wakefield. “We're also in some international countries. We have some channel partners that have also helped distribute for us. We probably are in every state in the US in some form or another, in a white-labeled version or within our own Sibme platform. We're definitely one of the leaders in our space for this type of next-generation solutions for professional learning and training.”

And as schools nationwide try to battle with teacher retention, Sibme offers its own solution by giving teachers concrete evidence that they are growing and improving as educators. After all, Sibme is an acronym for “Seeing is Believing Me,” which means that teachers will likely stay onboard if they feel that they are succeeding.

“One of our principals said that they don't have a retention problem because they invest so much in teacher excellence,” says Wakefield. “And when teachers feel successful, then they don't leave. They had, I think it was like an 86 percent decline in teacher turnover in one year just from the teachers being able to look at themselves and see that they’re growing and getting better and improving. That has a huge impact on their feelings of success in their jobs.”

A bright future

With more than 10 years under its belt, Sibme hopes the next 10 will offer even more advancements in the professional development space.

“We're sort of in that first sort of initial iteration of our release with AI,” says Wakefield. “That's only going to improve where things will just become more and more automated. The platform is just going to be able to help them do their work much more efficiently in the future. And they can coach and support far more people than they ever could without AI. And the experts can come in and leverage the AI to be so much more effective at their jobs.

“We’ll continue preparing the next generation of teachers, as well as in university teacher prep programs, so that teachers are getting better prepared for the realities of the classroom by getting a lot more reflection and practice.”

Allie Danziger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss her edtech startup Ampersand's exit. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

How this Houston edtech startup's acquisition is primed to further advance platform reach, impact

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 200

For the second time in less than six years, Houston entrepreneur Allie Danziger has navigated a company through an exit. But, with the two exists under her belt, Danziger says the two transactions could not be any more different.

Danziger founded Integrate Agency, a digital-focused public relations firm, in 2009 and sold it to another marketing and PR firm based in Austin in 2018. She founded her next company, Ampersand Professionals, in 2020 to address the challenges for upskilling young professionals to prepare them for success in the workplace — something employers really wanted, but struggled to do consistently.

Last month, Ampersand was acquired by Ascent Funding, a college loan provider that's building out a platform to support its college-aged borrowers. In this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Danziger shares how this opportunity came about and looks back on these two pivotal deals.

"Integrate definitely was not built to sell — I didn't even know that people sold businesses when I was 24 (and started the agency," Danziger, who worked in PR her entire career at that time, says, adding that she thought she'd work at the company her whole life before passing it down to her children. "It ended up being a life-changing experience and opportunity because it did open my eyes up to other other things that I could do professionally — and also just kind of like the way that businesses are structured and run."

One of those things she considered post acquisition was upskilling entry-level employees. At Integrate, she hired a lot of interns and recent college graduates. She recognized there was a gap in the market. The first problem she identified was the need to match interns to positions at companies in an optimized way. While that's how the company started, it pivoted as Danziger says she saw the bigger need not for finding interns, but for making sure they were ready for their positions from the start.

"Most business leaders need their interns and entry-level employees starting day one with an understanding of how to communicate, and they don't really have the resources to teach them some of these skills," she explains.

Once the Ampersand platform, which has tons of resources and hours of instruction loaded on it, the challenge was finding the stakeholders that wanted the platform to exist — her potential customers. Was it the colleges or the employers? Through this journey, she realized that college loan lenders are part of that equation too.

"The lenders — the ones who are giving the student loans — they're the ones who really need them to be successful in the workplace," Danziger explains, saying the success of their loan recipients ensures a timely payout for the lender. "Their business model is predicated on students being successful, and I'd always known that, but not quite known what to do with that knowledge."

Danziger says the idea for acquisition, while always in the back of her mind, really became a possibility when she went out to raise funding.

"You're always raising money, and you're always for sale," Danziger says of the startup journey.

When a potential investor raised the idea of being a potential acquirer, Danziger says she started doing some soul searching. The right acquisition deal could help her address the milestones she wanted to reach with investment funding — growing her team, expanding her technology, and broadening reach. Through a diligent process, Danziger decided on Ascent from a few other potential acquirers.

"I'm not going anywhere. I want to still keep solving this problem, but with a larger team and larger resources," she says. "Either I could go find that myself, or I could join forces we could join forces with an established organization."

Danziger says her role at Ascent is still being constructed in terms of scope and responsibilities, but her title as of now is senior vice president and general manager of student success. She will lead the company's educational program that focuses on equipping students with skills from education to employment.

She shares more on the acquisition process — including her advice to startups thinking about the M&A path. Listen to the interview here — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Gamified activities incentivize students to work harder to achieve goals and catch up in the subjects they were falling behind in. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: How gamification in education can close the COVID-19 learning gap

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The COVID-19 pandemic has presented difficulty for teachers. Students adjusting from in-person to remote back to in-person learning have struggled immensely.

Research demonstrates that during the COVID-19 pandemic, high school students lost on average “the equivalent of 3.4 months of instruction in reading, 3.3 months in math, 3.1 months in science, and 2.3 months in English” — even through remote learning.

This learning gap, or COVID slide, as it is more commonly referred to, needs to be addressed. Already, we are seeing the consequences of this learning loss. According to data from the ACT, the standardized college entrance exam taken by high school juniors and seniors, the “average high school junior who took the college entrance exam in spring 2021 fell from the 50th to 46th percentile.”

Even as in-person instruction resumes again, test scores continue to stagnate and fall. The question remains: how do we recoup this learning loss caused by COVID-19?

What is ed tech?

Education technology, or edtech, refers to the practice of using educational hardware and software to enhance teaching in the classroom. Edtech can make learning more accessible and fun for students. With the rise in learning gaps in the classrooms, edtech can solve this growing issue.

While edtech has taken over the field of education quite rapidly due to the onset of COVID-19, there are certain aspects of educational technology that are still unexplored by many. Virtual reality, augmented reality, and machine learning have become more prominent in the field. Learning becomes much more exciting when the idea of games is added to it.

The concept that students end up learning more while having fun has been given a new name: gamification in education. Game-based elements are integrated with learning to enhance students’ knowledge and information. Technology has broken down various barriers to becoming an integral part of our day-to-day lives and changing how we live. However, despite becoming a part of education, there is limited research as to how gamification affects students.

Benefits of gamification in education

Do you remember that feeling back in school when you received a gold star on your worksheet? Or the time when your name went up on the classroom wall of fame? That feeling of being excited and even proud of our achievement is what we need to harness in order to make our students excited about their learning. By providing badging and credentialing in their day-to-day learning, we can provide gamification aspects of that classroom wall of fame!

Even though it is evident that students are significantly more enthusiastic when gamification in education is involved, there are certain behavioral changes caused by gamification that are also observed by various studies.

A study shows that gamification has a positive yet moderate effect on students. However, it tends to have a greater impact on school students than college students. Nonetheless, this cannot be generalized to all students since many character traits differ across students resulting in various outcomes.

According to Science Direct, students who experienced challenge-based gamification faced an increase in their performance levels by 89.45 percent as compared to those who only received lectures. This study once again proves that gamification piques the interest of students in their education and leads them to do better.

This point is further supported by Intuition which found that 67 percent of students found gamified learning to be more engaging and encouraging as compared to traditional learning courses.

The learning environment created with the availability of gamification seems promising to the extent that students are capable of achieving more and absorbing more as compared to traditional learning methods. E-learning has made different channels of education accessible to students who seem more eager to learn in a virtual social network. This behavior gives room to healthy competition among students who then wish to perform better than others.

​Incorporating gamification in education

There isn’t a set standard of gamified learning involved and depending on the lesson, different features of gamification can be used to make education fun and unique for all. Some useful ways of incorporating gamification within the classroom include:

  • Creating avatars. Allowing students to have personalized experiences and developing their skill sets in a competitive environment with their classmates prepares them for practical life.
  • Awarding badges. Rather than receiving grades, students can be awarded online badges that mark their progress in class.
  • Knowledge checks. Testing subject skills through quizzes and leaderboards increases the performance levels of students while strengthening their concepts within the class.

The addition of simple gamification in education makes the learning process unique to each teacher or classroom while enhancing the competitiveness of students to perform better and achieve more.

Considering that children have faced a detrimental setback in their education, we need to get their attention back on track. COVID-19 has made students heavily reliant on their tablets and smartphones which makes using gamification a good technique to get them to engage with their academics once again. These conceptual gamified activities incentivize students to work harder to achieve goals and catch up in the subjects they were lacking behind in. It is time that we try these engaging activities and unique methods to boost student engagement and provide an avenue for them to get excited about their education.

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Ghazal Qureshi is the founder and CEO of UpBrainery, a Houston-based immersive educational technology platform that taps into neuroscience research-based programs to provide adaptive learning and individualized pathways for students at home or in the classroom.

Edtech is expected to continue to make learning more interactive, fun, and inclusive for people around the world. Photo via Pexels

Here's what types of technology is going to disrupt the education sector, says this Houston founder

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Technology has always maneuvered education in a certain direction but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced it to shift towards a new direction entirely.

What started off as a basic video lecture turned into a more hybrid and innovative form of education, enabling student engagement and interactivity like never before. Social media forums allow teachers to pay one-on-one attention to students boosting their learning process.

With an edtech boom on the rise, there is a question of what further expansion in educational technology is expected. Here are some technology breakthroughs currently underway in the education sector:

Biometric signals

A technology that picks up human behavior and traits to display individual needs and requirements has become an important part of the education system. Biometrics within the classroom can disclose every student’s disposition, physical and emotional, making it possible to tailor the course to their personal needs.

Augmented reality glasses

Thomas Edison once said “Books will soon be obsolete in schools. Scholars will soon be instructed through the eye.” AR glasses layer data on what students see naturally giving a real-life learning experience. A student using AR glasses in the class could sit on his desk and have a geographical map laid out in front of him in the geography lesson.

Multi-touch surfaces

Even though multi-touch surfaces are present in smartphones and tablets, enabling them in the education system will be a game changer. With multitouch desks, students can access the virtual world of learning and connect with other students globally.

According to FMI, the Edtech Market will reach a whopping $288.4 billion by 2031. Analysts suggest this growth is due to sway towards digital learning which has allowed users to view content anywhere, anytime. The Learning Management Software has gained global acceptance since innovative tools are launched to help users adapt to the upcoming technology.

Companies and institutions are using LMS to enhance learning capabilities to further an edtech boom.

Between 2021 and 2031 the academic institution segment in the Edtech market is expected to increase by 16.7 percent. McKinsey suggests that these technologies have filled the void left by conventional teaching methods. Technologies like Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality have made classroom interactions and in-person experiences effective in the education system.

At the same time, Edtech investment is growing as well. HolonIQ reported a $21 billion venture of capital investment in edtech startups globally, in 2021. This was a growth 3 times higher before the pandemic hit the world. During the global pandemic, the education sector was revolutionized and learning moved online. This opened up an avenue for edtech startups globally creating room for an edtech boom.

Growth opportunities created by educational institutes 

Moving on from the global pandemic, education institutes have moved on from traditional learning, encouraging students to use ebooks. This has created opportunities for companies to share their e-learning solutions in the market.

Microlearning has been introduced as a concept where learners are provided knowledge at the rate they can absorb the information efficiently. This is helpful for learners with a short attention span. Microlearning improves learning transfer by 71 percent, and engagement by 50 percent while reducing development cost by 50 percent and increasing the development speed.

The pandemic has left its impact on the education system with educators and learners being comfortable with adaptive edtech. According to research by Purdue University, technological advances have changed the perspectives of both educators and learners. Being more aware of the fact that there is no standard way of learning for all students, teachers prefer educational technology for interactive learning sessions.

Innovation in edtech continues to grow since there are no limits to growth, especially in technology. After receiving positive feedback from parents, teachers, and students, further advances in edtech are expected to make learning more interactive, fun, and inclusive for people around the world.

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Ghazal Qureshi is the founder and CEO of UpBrainery, a Houston-based immersive educational technology platform that taps into neuroscience research-based programs to provide adaptive learning and individualized pathways for students at home or in the classroom.

Innovations like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and machine learning certainly have advantages in the edtech sector. Photo by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Houston founder: Innovating education in an evolving world

guest column

Once upon a time, gaining knowledge was relatively a simpler task. Going to school, being taught through books, the joy of taking notes on a neat blank page, and the use of bright, colorful stationery had another level of excitement.

Now, the overwhelming innovations in the educational sector has changed the entire landscape and left educators, students, and parents wondering whether they will be able to adapt to the changing times.

Innovations like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and machine learning certainly have advantages in the edtech sector.

What are AI, AR, and machine learning?

It is common to see these acronyms flash around in product innovations, news, and the educational sector. Artificial intelligence is the capability of a robot that is managed or controlled by a computer to do tasks that are carried out by humans, such as analyzing and making decisions.

Whereas augmented reality is the experience of a real world where the objects belonging to the real world are enhanced by the computer. Machine learning is a part of artificial intelligence that allows computers to act without being explicitly programmed.

According to the report published in Statista, “the global artificial intelligence market is projected to grow rapidly in the future years, reaching around $126 billion by 2025."

The Business Research Company has stated in their article that “the global augmented reality in training and education market size is expected to grow from $6.27 billion in 2021 to $10.37 billion in 2022 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 65.4 percent.”

Will the education industry be able to survive in these rapidly evolving times?

One thing which the pandemic has proved is that e-learning and e-teaching became easily accessible, adaptable, and preferred by the majority of the working class. Not only that but post-pandemic, both students and educators preferred online education over traditional methods since over time we have recognized the upside of e-learning.

Some of these include studying at your own pace and convenience, you get to design your schedule, and improved time management because you get to skip on travel-time and it leads to enhanced learning through innovative educational tools such as AI, AR, and machine learning.

As explained by Communications of the Association for Information System (CAIS), a study was conducted regarding what were the factors of receiving distance education despite the normal circumstances. A model was developed based on social cognitive theory and social cognitive career theory. It was then tested by using data from 525 college students surveyed after enrolling in distance learning classes. Per the report, "results indicate that personal and environmental factors drive intentions to continue with distance learning through their impact on distance learning perceived performance, and satisfaction.“

Augmented Reality in the educational sector has enabled teachers to engage their students through virtual examples of various concepts, by utilizing gaming-like strategists to help students understand the textbook materials easily.

As a result, students have shown keen interest, high engagement, faster learning, and easy memorizing capabilities.

A recent example of augmented reality in the educational sector is Google Expedition, which enables students to see 3D objects in the classroom like volcanoes, the human brain, DNA, etc., which helps them to understand, visualize and experience the learning process. It goes beyond the traditional imaginative process of learning and experiencing.

According to Assembler Blog, “statistics have revealed that 80 percent of more students are likely to attend a class that incorporates augmented reality experiences.” Moreover, “70 percent of students also say that they could grasp the material faster and improve their learning experience” through AR technology used in teaching.

Similarly, machine learning and AI have also taken the educational industry by storm.

A blog written in The Journal has stated that: “According to the eLearning Industry, 47 percent of learning management tools will be enabled with AI capabilities in the next three years.”

Artificial intelligence has helped students in tutoring when students face problems and are not able to reach their teachers at that moment, making virtual tutors, artificially intelligent software, and chatbots perfect solutions in these situations.

Moreover, personalization is something that every student prefers to have in their education. Through machine learning, AI has enabled its students to choose their program based on their capability, pace, and desire. We must recognize that each person has learning preferences, most of us only memorize through visual means. Similarly, another person might be an auditory learner or a kinesthetic learner. Hence, it is imperative to identify these cognitive traits to deliver personalized and successful learning experiences to our students.

AI has created benefits for educators as well, such as it has created a task automation system in which all kinds of daily mundane tasks including grading papers, admin work, replying to queries, etc. have been directly automated.

Although adopting cutting-edge technology in the educational industry for most institutions is certainly not a piece of cake as it is time-consuming and very costly.

But by looking at all the facts and figures, the benefits and students teachers' high engagement evidence shows that indeed the educational sector will transform and cope with the speedy changes gradually.

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Ghazal Qureshi is the founder and CEO of UpBrainery, a Houston-based immersive educational technology platform that taps into neuroscience research-based programs to provide adaptive learning and individualized pathways for students at home or in the classroom.

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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.