Esperson Flex plans on expanding within the historic Niels Esperson Building in the next five years. Photo via espersonflex.com

A nearly 100-year-old building in downtown Houston is welcoming in entrepreneurs, small business owners, and enterprise firms with a new opportunity to innovate outside of traditional office spaces.

Esperson Flex — a coworking concept in The Niels Esperson Building, which has stood out in Houston's skyline since its inception in 1927 — now offers various membership tiers in its facility featuring private offices, desk space, conference room, and access to the overall area for freelancers. As an add-on option to the membership, members will have the opportunity to connect with other entrepreneurs through The Cannon Community.

“Coworking allows small entrepreneurs to have a community and startup ecosystem that is very cheap and very flexible," Cameron Management CEO Dougal Cameron tells InnovationMap. “They can invest money in their enterprise instead of signing expensive long leases.”

Photo via espersonflex.com

Esperson coworkers have access to The Cannon's digital platform, Cannon Connect, which provides a digital platform for connections, resources, and services to investors, entrepreneurs, startups, and small businesses.

Currently, the offering of the venue is 12,300 square feet and 62 percent of it is leased.The company hopes to expand the coworking facilities to 62,000 square feet in the next five years, according to Cameron.

There are seven groups who are growing their own coworking business under the Esperson and Cameron Management umbrella, and some include working with groups that are specifically targeting often overlooked demographics, including Hispanic, Black, and female entrepreneurs. The Us Space, for instance, is a women of color-focused collective providing support and coworking for its community.

“We believe that entrepreneurship is the answer to many important problems in our world,” Cameron Management CEO Dougal Cameron tells InnovationMap.

In addition, the facility works with the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, which is a comprehensive re-entry program to help empower those trying to change their lives.

Photo via espersonflex.com

Located downtown, Esperson Flex is the latest in flexible work spaces by Cannon, which also include locations in the Energy Corridor, Houston Galleria, Galveston, The Woodlands, and, as of this week, Memorial.

Spaces like Esperson Flex have become increasingly popular for remote workers, and in some cases, have shown increases in overall productivity. In a survey conducted by Airtasker, remote employees worked 1.4 more days every month, than office workers, which equals 16.8 more days every year. In a similar survey by the Gartner 2021 Digital Worker Experience Survey, 43 percent said that flexible working hours helped them achieve more productivity.

The Cannon, too, has seen coworking and community-building opportunities from all corners of Houston, as the company's CEO, Jon Lambert, shared on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

The Cannon Galveston @ the MarMo has opened as a convening space for Galveston entrepreneurship. Photo via TheCannon.com

Houston coworking company opens new Galveston hub amid profound growth and expansion

seaside innovation

The Cannon Houston has expanded its footprint throughout 2021, and one of the coworking company's newest hubs has opened its doors seaside.

The Cannon Galveston @ the MarMo is a new coworking space with membership options starting at $180 a month for entrepreneurs. The building is a former credit union space that Galveston real estate entrepreneur, Jimmy McClure, bought and renovated. McClure is also one of The Cannon's board members as of a couple months ago.

"We've always felt there was this opportunity to create this coastal innovation community," says Alex Gras, chief commercial officer at the Cannon. "And we found a great partner in Jimmy McClure."

In the aftermath of the pandemic, Gras says people are going to be more intentional about where they spend their time, and this location offers its member companies something different.

The new space has membership options starting at $180 a month. Image via TheCannon.com

"Not only does Galveston have the allure of a coastal town with a more relaxed atmosphere, but it has some amazing support organizations," he says.

Gras is referring to the numerous innovative institutions on the island that have been operating in silos over the years — including University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Texas A&M Galveston, Galveston College, Galveston ISD, Vision Galveston, and more. Gras says the feedback for The Cannon providing this neutral convening space for entrepreneurship has been so positive.

"Galveston really has the raw ingredients to become an amazing innovation ecosystem," Gras tells InnovationMap.

From a programming perspective, entrepreneurs can expect exactly what The Cannon has brought to its other locations. The team recently held a hacakathon in collaboration with The Ion, Vision Galveston, and UTMB — which was a major success, according to Gras — and plans to host a pitch competition on March 10.

The MarMo is a former credit union building renovated by Jimmy McClure. Image via TheCannon.com

"At the end of the day, entrepreneurs are looking for peers that they can do this with and not feel like they are so alone, as well as advisers, mentors, and coaches who help them think differently and investors who can provide some economic capital to help prop up their ideas," Gras explains. "Any programming we do in the future will have elements of social, networking, and education — but all in the confines of making sure we're providing all these different human, economic, and social capital to the entrepreneurs of Galveston."

It's not just toward the Gulf of Mexico where The Cannon has expanded profoundly this year. The company's sportstech hub opened in the Galleria area in collaboration with Braun Enterprises and Gow Media (InnovationMap's parent company).

"The thing that's exciting about this profound growth is it's reflective of the two driving initiatives of the Cannon — one being establishing a network of programmatically connected innovation hubs throughout the entire expanse of the city of Houston," says Lawson Gow, founder of The Cannon. "The other is looking for opportunities where Houston can go deep into an industry and be the best at that."

Sportstech is one of those avenues of opportunity, according to Gow, but the team is always looking for other verticals that might be a similar fit.

Additionally, The Cannon opened a new space in the Esperson building in downtown Houston. This space is small, says Lawson Gow, founder of The Cannon, but has room to grow.

"We want to create network of hubs — some in the community want highly-programed environments," Gow explains, adding that the Esperson Coworking likely won't feature the same level of programming as seen at some of the other locations.

Gow explains that he expects to grow the team at The Cannon to sport these expansions, crediting Gras for building and cultivating the team. Gras joined The Cannon in February.

Alex Gras joined The Cannon as managing director in February, and recently transitioned into chief commercial officer. Photo via LinkedIn

"It wouldn't surprise us if we more than double our team within the next year," Gow says.

This profound growth comes after 18 months of uncertainty — which allowed Gow and his team to rethink some of their plans.

"Pre-covid had our eyes on expansion outside of the city, and we've dialed it back — it's been a healthy exercise", Gow says, "to reset our focus on the whole sprawl of Houston in setting up eight to 10 locations across the city so that we're truly democratizing access to all the tools entrepreneurs need to grow."

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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.