This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Aziz Gilani of Mercury, Yaxin Wang of the Texas Heart Institute, and Atul Varadhachary of Fannin Innovation. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.


Aziz Gilani, managing director at Mercury

Aziz Gilani, managing director at Mercury, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Aziz Gilani's career in tech dates back to when he'd ride his bike from Clear Lake High School to a local tech organization that was digitizing manuals from mission control. After years working on every side of the equation of software technology, he's in the driver's seat at a local venture capital firm deploying funding into innovative software businesses.

As managing director at Mercury, the firm he's been at since 2008, Gilani looks for promising startups within the software-as-a-service space — everything from cloud computing and data science and beyond.

"Once a year at Mercury, we sit down with our partners and talk about the next investment cycle and the focuses we have for what makes companies stand out," Gilani says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The current software investment cycle is very focused on companies that have truly achieved product-market fit and are showing large customer adoption." Read more.


Yaxin Wang, director of the Texas Heart Institute's Innovative Device & Engineering Applications Lab

The project is funded by a four-year, $7.8 million grant. THI will use about $2.94 million of that to fund its part of the research. Photo via texasheart.org

The United States Department of Defense has awarded a grant that will allow the Texas Heart Institute and Rice University 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 and are a long-term option in end-stage heart failure.

The grant is part of the DOD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). It was awarded to Georgia Institute of Technology, one of four collaborators on the project that will be designed and evaluated by the co-investigator Yaxin Wang. Wang is part of O.H. “Bud” Frazier’s team at Texas Heart Institute, where she is director of Innovative Device & Engineering Applications Lab. The other institution working on the new LVAD is North Carolina State University.

The project is funded by a four-year, $7.8 million grant. THI will use about $2.94 million of that to fund its part of the research. As Wang explained to us last year, an LVAD is a minimally invasive device that mechanically pumps a person’s own heart. Frazier claims to have performed more than 900 LVAD implantations, but the devices are far from perfect. Read more.

Atul Varadhachary, managing director of Fannin Innovation

Atul Varadhachary also serves as CEO and president of Allterum Therapeutics. Photo via LinkedIn

Allterum Therapeutics, a Houston biopharmaceutical company, has been awarded a $12 million product development grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

The funds will support the clinical evaluation of a therapeutic antibody that targets acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.

However, CEO and President Atul Varadhachary, who's also the managing director of Fannin Innovation, tells InnovationMap, “Our mission has grown much beyond ALL.” Read more.

Procyrion has announced the closing of its series E round of funding. Photo via Getty Images

Houston medical device company secures $57.7M to fund journey to FDA approval, commercialization

fresh funding

Houston-born and bred medical device company, Procyrion, has completed its series E with a raise of $57.7 million, including the conversion of $10 million of interim financing.

Procyrion is the company behind Aortix, a pump designed to be placed in the descending thoracic aorta of heart failure patients, which has been shown to improve cardiac performance in seriously ill subjects. The money raised will allow the company to proceed with a the DRAIN-HF Study, a pivotal trial that will be used for eventual FDA approval and commercialization.

The Aortix is the brainchild of Houston cardiologist Reynolds Delgado. According to Procyrion’s CSO, Jace Heuring, Delgado, gained some of his experience with devices for the heart working with legendary Texas Heart Institute surgeon O.H. “Bud” Frazier. He filed his first patents related to the Aortix in 2005.

Heuring says that the first prototypes were built in 2011, followed by the final design in 2018. CEO Eric Fain, a California-based MD and with more than 30 years in the medical device industry, joined the company in 2018 ahead of the final design, primed to bring Aortix to the public. He visits the company’s Houston headquarters, across the street from Central Market, on a regular basis.

The device’s pilot study of 18 patients was completed in 2022. Those encouraging results paved the way for the current study, which will include an enrollment of 134 patients. The randomized study will seek to treat patients with acute decompensated heart failure. Half will be treated with standard-of-care therapy, the other half will be catheterized with an Aortix pump. A separate arm of the study will seek to treat end-stage heart failure patients who would otherwise be deemed too sick for either a transplant or an LVAD permanent pump. Fort-five healthcare centers in the United States will participate, including Texas Heart Institute.

“One of the key characteristics is [the patients] are retaining a lot of fluid,” explains Heuring in a video interview. “And when I say a lot, I mean it could be 25 or 30 or 40 pounds of fluid or more. When we put our pump in, one of the main goals is to reduce that fluid load.”

On average, about 11 liters of fluid came off of each patient. Many of those end-stage patients had previously been considered for both a heart and kidney transplant, but after using the Aortix, their kidneys responded so well that they were able to get only the heart transplant.

“These patients really are in dire straits and come into the hospital and today the only proven therapy to help these patients is to administer high doses of intravenous diuretic and some other cardiac drugs and in about 25 percent of patients those therapies are ineffective,” says Fain.

If Aortix gains approval, these sickest of the sick, usually consigned to hospice care, will have hope.

Thanks to the Series E, led by Houston’s Fannin Partners, returning investors, including Bluebird Ventures, the Aortix is inching closer to commercialization. Besides funding the DRAIN-HR study, Procyrion will also use the funds for internal programs to improve product manufacturability. One more step towards meaning advanced heart failure may not always be a death sentence.

Last month, Atul Varadhachary, managing director of Fannin, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and alluded to Procyrion's raise. The company was born out of Fannin and still resides in the same building as Fannin.

Aortix is a pump designed to be placed in the descending thoracic aorta of heart failure patients. Photo via Procyrion

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Atul Varadhachary of Fannin, Natasha Gorodetsky of Product Pursuits, and Jay Hartenbach of Diakonos Oncology. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every Monday, I'm introducing you to three Houston innovators to know — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Atul Varadhachary, managing director of Fannin Innovation

Atul Varadhachary of Fannin joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Commercializing a life science innovation that has the potential to enhance or even save the lives of millions of patients is a marathon, not a sprint. That's how Atul Varadhachary thinks of it, and he's leading an organization that's actively running that race for several different early-stage innovations.

For over a decade, Fannin has worked diligently to develop promising life science innovations — that start as just an idea or research subject — by garnering grant funding and using its team of expert product developers to build out the technology or treatment. The model is different from what you'd see at an accelerator or incubator, and it also varies from the path taken by an academic or research institution.

The life science innovation timeline is very different from a software startup's, which can get to an early prototype in less than a year.

"In biotech, to get to that minimally viable product, it can take a decade and tens of millions of dollars," Varadhachary, managing director at Fannin, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Read more.

Natasha Gorodetsky, founder and CEO of Product Pursuits

A product management expert shares how artificial intelligence is affecting the process for the tech and startup worlds. Photo via LinkedIn

For over a year, the tech and business community has been obsessing over artificial intelligence. As Natasha Gorodetsky, the Houston-based founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, writes in a guest column about how the product management community is not an exception.

"Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users," she writes. "A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver."

She continues in her article to outline the trends of AI for product management. Read more.

Jay Hartenbach, COO of Diakonos Oncology

A Houston company with a promising immuno-oncology is one step closer to delivering its cancer-fighting drug to patients who need it. Photo via Diakonos

Diakonos Oncology has recently made major headway with the FDA, including both a fast track and an orphan drug designation. It will soon start a phase 2 trial of its promising cancer fighting innovation.

The therapy catalyzes a natural immune response, it’s the patient’s own body that’s fighting the cancer. Hartenbach credits Decker with the idea of educating dendritic cells to attack cancer, in this case, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), one of the most aggressive cancers with which doctors and patients are forced to tangle.

“Our bodies are already very good at responding very quickly and aggressively to what it perceives as virally infected cells. And so what Dr. Decker did was basically trick the immune system by infecting these dendritic cells with the cancer specific protein and mRNA,” details COO Jay Hartenbach. Read more.

Atul Varadhachary of Fannin joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston innovator plays the long game of life science innovation with optimized capital efficiency

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 222

Commercializing a life science innovation that has the potential to enhance or even save the lives of millions of patients is a marathon, not a sprint. That's how Atul Varadhachary thinks of it, and he's leading an organization that's actively running that race for several different early-stage innovations.

For over a decade, Fannin has worked diligently to develop promising life science innovations — that start as just an idea or research subject — by garnering grant funding and using its team of expert product developers to build out the technology or treatment. The model is different from what you'd see at an accelerator or incubator, and it also varies from the path taken by an academic or research institution.

The life science innovation timeline is very different from a software startup's, which can get to an early prototype in less than a year.

"In biotech, to get to that minimally viable product, it can take a decade and tens of millions of dollars," Varadhachary, managing director at Fannin, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.



Fannin addresses what Varadhachary calls a twin bottleneck in Houston's life science innovation ecosystem. Not only does Houston not attract the funding biotech startups need desperately to grow their companies, but hiring is a major issue as the city isn't home to an established labor pool of experienced product developers within the industry.

"The challenge is that product development is more complex — it requires innovation, but that's not sufficient. When you ask people why we lag in the product development in the life sciences — although we are home to the largest medical center in the country, we don't even make list of top 10 biotech clusters — the usual answer is that we don't have enough biotech investors," Varadhachary says.

"But that puts the cart before the horse," he continues. "Investors invest in people not just ideas. Although we have an amazing pool of researchers and clinicians, we lack experienced product developers."

In more ways than one, Fannin is addressing this problem. For all of its several ongoing programs, Fannin acts as the leadership team for the technologies. Its core employees — there are about 20 currently — work on all of the companies, which are developing a range life science innovations, from Brevitest, a point-of-use immunoassay platform, to Procyrion, an intra-aortic pump for congestive heart failure patients.

Fannin's programs also range in stage, which Varadhachary outlines on the show to be three different phases. The earliest stage programs will have Fannin's team working directly on early testing, product development, and grant writing, while the later stage programs will have built out a dedicated team and raise venture investment.

Another way Fannin is addressing Houston's lack of life science product developers is through its Fannin Talent Development Program, which has given around 350 individuals an opportunity to gain critical product development experience.

With 10 years under its belt, Fannin — as well as the greater Houston life science innovation ecosystem — is at a point where it can soon produce exits needed to firm up Houston as a life science leader.

"Clearly, we've got the base elements required to be a successful ecosystem, and they continue to grow," Varadhachary says of Houston. "Typically you need one or two really big success stories — especially if those success stories result in a company being sold, leaving behind experienced product developers with money in their pockets — that's often what will supercharge the next cycle of development. I'm hoping that will happen in Houston in the next five years, decade, or so."

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Report: Houston secures spot on list of top 50 startup cities

by the numbers

A new ranking signals great promise for the growth of Houston’s startup network.

Houston ranks among the world’s top 50 startup cities on a new list from PitchBook, a provider of data and research about capital markets. In fact, Houston comes in at No. 50 in the ranking. But if you dig deeper into the data, Houston comes out on top in one key category.

The city earns a growth score of 63.8 out of 100 — the highest growth score of any U.S. city and the seventh highest growth score in the world. In the growth bucket, Houston sits between between Paris (64.4) and Washington, D.C. (61.7).

The PitchBook growth score reflects short-term, midterm, and long-term growth momentum for activity surrounding venture capital deals, exits, and fundraising for the past six years.

PitchBook’s highest growth score (86.5) goes to Hefei, a Chinese manufacturing hub for electric vehicles, solar panels, liquid crystal displays, home appliances, and Lenovo computers.

The overall ranking is based on a scoring system that relies on proprietary PitchBook data about private companies. The system’s growth and development scores are based on data related to deals, exits, fundraising and other factors.

Houston earns a development score of 34.1 out of 100, which puts it in 50th place globally in that regard. This score measures the size and maturity of a city’s startup network.

Topping the overall list is San Francisco, followed by New York City and Beijing. Elsewhere in Texas, Austin appears at No. 16 and Dallas at No. 36.

The ranking “helps founders, operators, and investors assess locations when deciding where to expand or invest,” says PitchBook.

“Network effects matter in venture capital: Investors get more than half of their deals through referrals, according to research led by Harvard professor Paul Gompers,” PitchBook goes on to say. “So it stands to reason that dealmakers should seek these networks out when deciding where to do business.”

4 Houston universities earn top spots for graduate programs in Texas

top schools

Houston's top-tier universities have done it again. U.S. News and World Report has four Houston-area universities among the best grad schools in the state, with some departments landing among the top 100 in the country.

U.S. News publishes its annual national "Best Graduate Schools" rankings, which look at several programs including business, education, engineering, fine arts, health, and many others. For the 2024 report, the publication decided to withhold its rankings for engineering and medical schools. It also changed the methodology for ranking business schools by adding a new "salary indicator" based on a graduate's profession.

U.S. News also added new rankings for doctoral and master's programs in several medical fields for the first time in four years, or even longer in some cases. New specialty program rankings include audiology, occupational therapy, physical therapy, pharmacy, nurse midwifery, speech-language pathology, nurse anesthesia, and social work.

"Depending on the job or field, earning a graduate degree may lead to higher earnings, career advancement and specialized skill development," wrote Sarah Wood, a U.S. News Education reporter. "But with several types of degrees and hundreds of graduate schools, it can be difficult to narrow down the options."

Without further ado, here's how the local schools ranked:

Rice University's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business maintained its position as No. 2 in Texas, but slipped from its former No. 24 spot in the 2023 report to No. 29 overall in the nation in 2024. Its entrepreneurship program tied for No. 8 in the U.S, while its part-time MBA program ranked No. 15 overall.

Houston's University of Texas Health Science Centerearned the No. 3 spots in Texas for its masters and doctorate nursing programs, with the programs earning the No. 31 and No. 45 spots overall in the nation. The school ranked No. 25 nationally in the ranking of Best Public Health schools, and No. 36 for its nursing-anesthesia program.

Prairie View A&M University's Northwest Houston Center ranked No. 5 in Texas and No. 117 in the nation for its master's nursing program. Its Doctor of Nursing Practice program ranked No. 8 statewide, and No. 139 nationally.

The University of Houstonmoved up one spot to claim No. 4 spot in Texas for its graduate education program, and improved by seven spots to claim No. 63 nationally. Its graduate business school also performed better than last year to claim No. 56 in the nation, according to the report. The University of Houston Law Center is the fifth best in Texas, and 68th best in the U.S. Most notably, its health care law program earned top nods for being the seventh best in the country.

Among the new specialty program rankings, UH's pharmacy school ranked No. 41 nationally, while the speech-language pathology program earned No. 44 overall. The graduate social work and public affairs programs ranked No. 67 and No. 76, respectively, in the nation.

The full list of best graduate schools can be found on usnews.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Op-Ed: Removing barriers is critical for the future of Houston's health care workforce

guest column

Houston houses one of the most renowned medical communities in the world. However, Texas' current health care workforce shortage has severely impacted the city, with large swaths of the Gulf Coast Region deemed medically underserved. Thousands of Houstonians are impacted year after year due to the lack of access to life-saving medical care.

The obvious solution to this problem is to form a pipeline of health care workers by equipping students with the necessary skills and education to fill this gap. Sadly, many individuals who lack opportunity yet aspire to pursue a career in the health care industry face barriers related to childcare, transportation, mentorship gaps and life's unexpected circumstances.

Dwyer Workforce Development (DWD), a national health care training nonprofit, has recently expanded its footprint to Texas and has joined Houston Community College (HCC), one of the largest community colleges in the country, to provide life-changing support and create a pipeline of new health care workers, many who come from underserved areas.

Last year, our organizations launched the Dwyer Scholar Apprenticeship program, which is actively enrolling to combat the health care shortage and bring opportunities to those lacking. Working together, we are supporting apprentices each year to earn their Certified Nurse Aide (CNA) certificates, where students can choose a Phlebotomy or EKG specialization, helping our city meet the demand for one of the most essential and in-demand jobs in health care each year. Our program will help address Texas' loss of 36 percent of its CNAs over the past decade while providing gateways for highly motivated students—Dwyer Scholars—to thrive in long-term health care careers.

We know financial barriers prevent many potential health care workers from obtaining the certifications needed to enter the workforce. That's why we are bringing our innovative programs together, enabling Scholars to earn while they learn and opening doors for those who do not have the financial luxury of completing their training in a traditional educational atmosphere.

After enrollment, DWD continues to provide case management and additional financial support for pressures like housing, childcare, and transportation so Scholars don't have to put their work before their education. Scholars are placed with employers during the program, where they complete their apprenticeships and begin full-time employment following graduation.

The Texas Workforce Commission has identified apprenticeship programs as a key area for expansion to meet employer demand for skilled workers. Through our partnership, we are doing just that – and the model is proven. More than 85 percent of DWD Scholars in Maryland, where the program was established, have earned their certificates and are now employed or on track to begin their careers.

Our work doesn't end here. Over the next decade, Texas will face a shortage of 57,000 skilled nurses. Texas must continue to expand awareness and access to key workforce training programs to improve outcomes for diverse needs. Our organizations are working to vastly expand our reach, making the unattainable attainable and helping to improve the lives and health of our community.

No one's past or present should dictate their future. Everyone deserves access to health care, the ability to further their education and the chance to set and achieve life goals. The opportunities to reach and empower underserved populations to participate in the health care workforce are limitless.

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Barb Clapp is CEO of Dwyer Workforce Development, a nonprofit that supports individuals who aspire to pursue a career in the health care industry. Christina Robinson is the executive director for work-based learning and industry partnerships at Houston Community College.