3 Houston innovators to know this week

hou to know

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Brianna Brazle of CultureLancer, Sameer Soleja of Molecule, and Emerson Perin of Texas Heart Institute. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health care to energy tech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Brianna Brazle, founder of CultureLancer

Houston founder joins DivInc's newest accelerator that supports Web3 companies with a social impact. Photo courtesy

DivInc, aTexas-based accelerator focused on helping BIPOC and female founders on their entrepreneurial journeys, announced the inaugural class for its newest accelerator. DWeb for Social Impact Accelerator, a 12-week intensive hybrid program sponsored by Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web, will mentor nine companies, all of whom integrate Web3 technologies into their impact entrepreneurship.

One Houston-based startup, CultureLancer, will be participating in the program. Founded by Brianna Brazle, the career-focused platform matches students from HBCU with companies looking to hire in the fields of business development, data analysis, marketing, and operations.

“That’s a problem that has been existing and then after doing more research I learned historically about 56%, year over year, of college graduates find themselves unemployed or underemployed,” Brazle explains. “My first solution to this problem was a hybrid marketplace.” Read more.

Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule

Sameer Soleja has expanded his company's platform. Photo courtesy of Molecule Software

Houston startup Molecule Software hopes to get a big bang out of its new platform for the energy and commodities markets. The data-as-a-lake platform, Bigbang, is available as an add-on for current Molecule customers. It enables energy trading and risk management (ETRM) and commodities trading and risk management customers to automatically import trade data from Molecule, and then merge it with various sources to conduct queries and analysis.

Molecule sells Bigbang at a monthly rate through either a yearly or multiyear contract.

“We’re seeing a growing need in the energy and commodities trading space for a turnkey data lake, as indicated by our own customers. They need real-time and automated data streaming from key systems, the ability to query the data quickly and easily, and access to the data using the analytics tools they know well,” says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule. Read more.

Emerson Perin, medical director of The Texas Heart Institute

Emerson Perin of the Texas Heart Institute, recently published the largest clinical trial of cell therapy for patients with chronic heart failure to-date included 580 patients at 52 sites throughout North America. Photo via texasheart.org

Emerson Perin’s end goal isn’t to treat heart failure. The medical director of The Texas Heart Institute says that he has his sights set firmly on curing the malady altogether. And, with the power of innovation and a strong team, the Houston-based cardiologist has a good chance of meeting his objective.

Perin first came to THI for fellowship training in 1988, following his residency in Miami and medical school in his birthplace of Brazil.

“This is a very special place,” the physician and researcher, whose titles also include director for THI’s Center for Clinical Research and vice president for medical affairs, tells InnovationMap. “It has a worldwide-reaching reputation. I’ve always liked research and this is a great place in terms of innovation and practicing high-level cardiology.” Read more.

Emerson Perin of the Texas Heart Institute, recently published the largest clinical trial of cell therapy for patients with chronic heart failure to-date included 580 patients at 52 sites throughout North America. Photo via texasheart.org

Houston health care leader on a mission to innovate an end to heart failure

cardiology cured

Emerson Perin’s end goal isn’t to treat heart failure. The medical director of The Texas Heart Institute says that he has his sights set firmly on curing the malady altogether. And, with the power of innovation and a strong team, the Houston-based cardiologist has a good chance of meeting his objective.

Perin first came to THI for fellowship training in 1988, following his residency in Miami and medical school in his birthplace of Brazil.

“This is a very special place,” the physician and researcher, whose titles also include director for THI’s Center for Clinical Research and vice president for medical affairs, tells InnovationMap. “It has a worldwide-reaching reputation. I’ve always liked research and this is a great place in terms of innovation and practicing high-level cardiology.”

For decades, Perin has followed in THI founder Denton Cooley’s footsteps with world-changing research. In 2001, the founding medical director of THI’s Stem Cell Center was the first person to inject stem cells into a failing human heart. It led to a trial of 17 patients that year.

“A couple of the patients did remarkably well — more than you could ever expect. These guys who couldn’t’ walk across the room pretty much were jogging on the beach. That gave me the initial insight that this works,” Perin recalls.

What exactly is heart failure? The term refers to the condition of a heart that can’t pump enough blood to sustainably power the body through oxygenation of the tissues from blood flow. It may sound like a death sentence, but with appropriate care, it can usually be managed with medicines and if worsening occurs, devices and, ultimately, heart transplantation.

And Perin is proving that there’s a lot of life ahead for heart failure patients. Earlier this year, he published another groundbreaking clinical trial, DREAM-HF. The largest clinical trial of cell therapy for patients with chronic heart failure to-date included 580 patients at 52 sites throughout North America.

With the goal of getting a new cell therapy approved for heart failure, the primary endpoint was to prove that the therapy could prevent recurrent hospitalizations.

“It was a total negative,” says Perin. That’s because the cells don’t have a decongestant effect such as the medicines currently used to treat heart failure.

But that doesn’t mean that the trial was a failure. Quite the opposite. That’s because Perin and his team proved something else: The trial was able to prove that there was significant improvement in patients with inflammation. After those patients were injected with mesenchymal precursor cells (MPC), they showed a 70-percent reduction in heart attacks and strokes. Cardiovascular deaths also decreased.

These are blockbuster numbers, and big news for patients dealing with heart failure. What it means is that the cells addressed a different aspect of heart failure that until now had been left untreated which was the inflammation — how heart failure starts and what keeps it going.

So what’s next? Going to the FDA.

“They said, ‘We can’t approve it with one trial, but we’ll approve it with two,’” says Perin.

This time, his primary endpoint will be tailored to suit the positive outcome he knows he’ll be able achieve. This next round will begin in 2024.

Once the FDA approves a new catheter system for injecting the heart with stem cells and genes, the team will proceed with new studies. Gene therapy will be another frontier for Perin — and patients with heart failure.

“I think the combination of cells and genes is even more powerful,” he says. “That will help save lives in a completely new way and do away with heart failure.”

Perin's work is just one piece of the puzzle, and Dr. Joseph Rogers, who was appointed president and CEO of THI in 2021, is leading the organization's initiative in several ways. THI, recently buoyed by a $32 million donation from a patient — the largest charitable donation in its history — is exploring several innovative therapeutics, devices, and treatments.

THI recently received a two-year, $1.14 million grant from The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute to develop a novel, first-in-class drug to treat the cardiovascular disease that arises from atherosclerosis. Another THI innovator, Camila Hochman-Mendez — along with her research team — is studying the effects of regenerative medicine on hearts.

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Houston engineers develop breakthrough device to advance spinal cord treatment

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A team of Rice University engineers has developed an implantable probe over a hundred times smaller than the width of a hair that aims to help develop better treatments for spinal cord disease and injury.

Detailed in a recent study published in Cell Reports, the probe or sensor, known as spinalNET, is used to explore how neurons in the spinal cord process sensation and control movement, according to a statement from Rice. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, Rice, the California-based Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the philanthropic Mary K. Chapman Foundation based in Oklahoma.

The soft and flexible sensor was used to record neuronal activity in freely moving mice with high resolution for multiple days. Historically, tracking this level of activity has been difficult for researchers because the spinal cord and its neurons move so much during normal activity, according to the team.

“We developed a tiny sensor, spinalNET, that records the electrical activity of spinal neurons as the subject performs normal activity without any restraint,” Yu Wu, a research scientist at Rice and lead author of the study said in a statement. “Being able to extract such knowledge is a first but important step to develop cures for millions of people suffering from spinal cord diseases.”

The team says that before now the spinal cord has been considered a "black box." But the device has already helped the team uncover new findings about the body's rhythmic motor patterns, which drive walking, breathing and chewing.

Lan Luan (from left), Yu Wu, and Chong Xie are working on the breakthrough device. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

"Some (spinal neurons) are strongly correlated with leg movement, but surprisingly, a lot of neurons have no obvious correlation with movement,” Wu said in the statement. “This indicates that the spinal circuit controlling rhythmic movement is more complicated than we thought.”

The team said they hope to explore these findings further and aim to use the technology for additional medical purposes.

“In addition to scientific insight, we believe that as the technology evolves, it has great potential as a medical device for people with spinal cord neurological disorders and injury,” Lan Luan, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice and a corresponding author on the study, added in the statement.

Rice researchers have developed several implantable, minimally invasive devices to address health and mental health issues.

In the spring, the university announced that the United States Department of Defense had awarded a four-year, $7.8 million grant to the Texas Heart Institute and a Rice team led by co-investigator Yaxin Wang to continue to break ground on a novel left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that could be an alternative to current devices that prevent heart transplantation.

That same month, the university shared news that Professor Jacob Robinson had published findings on minimally invasive bioelectronics for treating psychiatric conditions. The 9-millimeter device can deliver precise and programmable stimulation to the brain to help treat depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Houston clean hydrogen startup to pilot tech with O&G co.

stay gold

Gold H2, a Houston-based producer of clean hydrogen, is teaming up with a major U.S.-based oil and gas company as the first step in launching a 12-month series of pilot projects.

The tentative agreement with the unnamed oil and gas company kicks off the availability of the startup’s Black 2 Gold microbial technology. The technology underpins the startup’s biotech process for converting crude oil into proprietary Gold Hydrogen.

The cleantech startup plans to sign up several oil and gas companies for the pilot program. Gold H2 says it’s been in discussions with companies in North America, Latin America, India, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The pilot program is aimed at demonstrating how Gold H2’s technology can transform old oil wells into hydrogen-generating assets. Gold H2, a spinout of Houston-based biotech company Cemvita, says the technology is capable of producing hydrogen that’s cheaper and cleaner than ever before.

“This business model will reshape the traditional oil and gas industry landscape by further accelerating the clean energy transition and creating new economic opportunities in areas that were previously dismissed as unviable,” Gold H2 says in a news release.

The start of the Black 2 Gold demonstrations follows the recent hiring of oil and gas industry veteran Prabhdeep Singh Sekhon as CEO.

“With the proliferation of AI, growth of data centers, and a national boom in industrial manufacturing underway, affordable … carbon-free energy is more paramount than ever,” says Rayyan Islam, co-founder and general partner at venture capital firm 8090 Industries, an investor in Gold H2. “We’re investing in Gold H2, as we know they’ll play a pivotal role in unleashing a new dawn for energy abundance in partnership with the oil industry.”

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

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 an e-commerce startup founder, an industrial biologist, and a cellular scientist.

Omair Tariq, co-founder and CEO of Cart.com

Omair Tariq of Cart.com joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share his confidence in Houston as the right place to scale his unicorn. Photo via Cart.com

Houston-based Cart.com, which operates a multichannel commerce platform, has secured $105 million in debt refinancing from investment manager BlackRock.

The debt refinancing follows a recent $25 million series C extension round, bringing Cart.com’s series C total to $85 million. The scaleup’s valuation now stands at $1.2 billion, making it one of the few $1 billion-plus “unicorns” in the Houston area.

Cart.com was co-founded by CEO Omair Tariq in October 2020. Read more.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin, vice president of industrial biotechnology at Cemvita

Nádia Skorupa Parachin joined Cemvita as vice president of industrial biotechnology. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita recently tapped two executives to help commercialize its sustainable fuel made from carbon waste.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin came aboard as vice president of industrial biotechnology, and Phil Garcia was promoted to vice president of commercialization.

Parachin most recently oversaw several projects at Boston-based biotech company Ginkjo Bioworks. She previously co-founded Brazilian biotech startup Integra Bioprocessos. Read more.

Han Xiao, associate professor of chemistry at Rice University

The funds were awarded to Han Xiao, a chemist at Rice University.

A Rice University chemist has landed a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Health for his work that aims to reprogram the genetic code and explore the role certain cells play in causing diseases like cancer and neurological disorders.

The funds were awarded to Han Xiao, the Norman Hackerman-Welch Young Investigator, associate professor of chemistry, from the NIH's Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program, which supports medically focused laboratories. Xiao will use the five-year grant to advance his work on noncanonical amino acids.

“This innovative approach could revolutionize how we understand and control cellular functions,” Xiao said in the statement. Read more.