This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Anouk van Pol of INGU Solutions, Eric Tait of Urban Capital Network, and Chris Howard of Softeq. Courtesy photos

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

Anouk van Pol, co-founder and COO of INGU Solutions

INGU Solutions has established its U.S. office in Houston — and is ready to tap into the city's energy industry with its revolutionary pipeline inspection-as-a-service model. Photo via LinkedIn

After generating some fresh funds from U.S. investors in 2019, Canadian pipeline services company INGU Solutions decided it was time to open a new office somewhere in the country. The startup led by a father-daughter team chose Houston and opened up an office just ahead of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The idea was to be closer to our customers,” Anouk van Pol, COO, tells InnovationMap. “Houston is the oil and gas hub, and just being able to be in [our clients'] offices and be there in person it just helps. I hope at one point COVID passes and that we can make use out of it a bit more.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, INGU, which uses data analytics and a small sensor to inspect pipes within the energy and water industries, grew 60 percent over the past two years. Click here to read more.

Eric Tait, co-founder at Urban Capital Network

Urban Capital Network have launched a fund-of-funds to allow investors to tap into later-stage startups at a much lower barrier of entry. Photo via urbancapitalnetwork.com

With its new fund of funds, Houston-based Urban Capital Network is allowing its members the chance to invest in venture funds at a much lower barrier of entry. The Horizon Fund II will deploy capital in up to five funds — each with 15 to 30 portfolio companies.

Eric Tait, co-founder at UCN, says they are looking for variety in the funds they invest in and are targeting top-tier, and highly rated VC firms all over the country that UCN's leadership has connections with.

“We’re relatively agnostic in terms of industry,” Tait says. “We do try to have a portfolio allocation that will create a return threshold that is varied.” Click here to read more.

Chris Howard, CEO and founder of Softeq

A Houston software company has announced its new venture fund. Photo courtesy of Softeq

Last week, Houston-based Softeq Development Corporation, a global full-stack development company, launched The Softeq Venture Fund, a $40 million venture fund to invest in seed and series A startup rounds. According to a news release, more than half the fund will be deployed to power the Softeq Venture Studio, Softeq's recently launched accelerator program.

“For generations, the state of Texas has been home to world-renowned tech companies who have greatly contributed to our regional success. As a local entrepreneur, advisor, and angel investor, it’s been my dream for many years to create a venture fund benefiting startups," says Christopher A. Howard, founder and CEO of Softeq, in the release. "I am proud to increase our support of the state’s early-stage tech community. Our investment fund is designed to attract tech visionaries from both inside and outside the state and grow innovative concepts in Houston." Click here to read more.

Urban Capital Network have launched a fund-of-funds to allow investors to tap into later-stage startups at a much lower barrier of entry. Images via urbancapitalnetwork.com

Houston group launches equitable fund of funds to increase impact at a lower barrier of entry

more access to funding

Early stage investing has always been a tried and true way for investors to get in on the ground floor of a tech company for a smaller financial commitment — but it's risky. Urban Capital Network has created an alternative.

UCN was founded to democratize investment opportunities and help investors of color find investment opportunities all while cutting their teeth as novice investors. Lenny Saizan, co-founder of UCN, says that its Horizon Fund II allows for UCN investors to get involved in venture-backed companies at a much lower price tag.

Saizan explains that UCN members are in that lower tier of accredited investors who don't necessarily have $250,000 or $1 million to invest in a fund — but they have $15,000 to $25,000 to invest.

"We allow more people to participate in venture funds or venture-backed opportunities," Saizan tells InnovationMap. "Instead of going into one deal at a very early stage, you’re getting in a later stage where the deal is more de-risked and you have a better chance of returns."

As members start to see returns on these premium investment opportunities, Saizan says, UCN encourages their investors to look at earlier stage within their own communities.

“We recognized that there was still an issue with minority founders getting funded as well,” Saizan says of UCN's mission as a whole. “We thought the best approach would be to create wealth and income within the communities that those founders would be reaching out to.”

Horizon Fund II will deploy capital in up to five funds — each with 15 to 30 portfolio companies. The first two investment opportunities have already been secured: Pegasus Tech Ventures's Pre-IPO Fund and Mercury Fund V, a Houston VC firm. In two years, UCN has seen five exits across its six funds. It's the group's second fund of funds — the first was an investment in Mercury Fund IV.

Eric Tait, co-founder at UCN, says they are looking for variety in the funds they invest in and are targeting top-tier, and highly rated VC firms all over the country that UCN's leadership has connections with.

“We’re relatively agnostic in terms of industry,” Tait says. “We do try to have a portfolio allocation that will create a return threshold that is varied.”

Typically, Tait explains, investing in a VC fund won't garner returns for seven to 10 years. However, UCN specifically targeted Pegasus's Pre-IPO Fund because ROI is expected between years two and four.

Tait says one of the things of focus for UCN this year is to grow the network's reach.

“A big goal for us is to tap into more institutional investors — like family offices, and things of that nature,” Tait says. “What we’ve realized is what we’ve been able to do for individual investors has been locked down, and we can do the same thing on a smaller scale for institutional dollars who are interested in these opportunities but don’t want to put in $1 million.”

Saizan says his team is also looking to give members a tech upgrade when it comes to accessing information and deals on UCN's platform. Additionally, he wants to focus on strengthening the group's network of VCs and how UCN interacts with them. He says firms reach out with interest all the time, and he wants to streamline that process using technology.

“We really want to formalize our network,” Saizan says. “We’re bringing diverse deal flow, diverse investors, diverse talent, and a diverse perspective. So, a lot of times VCs tap us when they are looking for an opportunity — or maybe they have an opportunity and want to know what we think.”

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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.