Calling all biotechnology startups. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston organization — freshly funded by a $700,000 U.S. Economic Development Administration’s “Build to Scale” grant — is seeking its first accelerator cohort of industrial biology startups.

Founded by Houston-based First Bight Ventures, the BioWell has launched a virtual accelerator program that will provide programming, networking, mentorship, and financial resources to its inaugural cohort of 10 bioindustrial startups. The selected companies will also have access to specialized pilot bioproduction infrastructure throughout the nine-month program.

“BioWell equips startups with more than just capital. We provide a foundation for breakthrough innovations by combining access to cutting-edge bioproduction facilities with expertise that nurtures scalability. This comprehensive support is crucial for transforming pioneering ideas into market-ready solutions that can address pressing global challenges,” Carlos Estrada, head of venture acceleration at BioWell, says in a news release.

Applications for the program are open until May 15, and the cohort will be announced in June. Specifically, BioWell is seeking seed or pre-seed startup applicants that have a technology readiness level of 3 to 5, focusing on areas including low-cost and sustainable feedstocks, commercially viable yields, and purpose fit microbes.

“During our selection process, we'll prioritize startups that demonstrate a commitment to not only hitting milestones but also to building sustainable revenue streams for long-term survival. This phase necessitates keen awareness of market dynamics, customer demands, and sound financial management,” adds First Bight Ventures and BioWell Founder Veronica Wu.

In December, BioWell secured $741,925 of the $53 million doled out as a part of the "Build to Scale" Grant program that the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has established. First Bight was one of 60 organizations to receive funding.

Ex-Apple exec Wu founded First Bight Ventures in Houston in 2022 after relocating from Silicon Valley and seeing the region's potential for biotech.

BioWell, a Houston accelerator focused on synthetic biology, named its first executive director. Photo via Getty Images

Houston nonprofit synthetic biology accelerator names inaugural executive director

new hire

A Houston accelerator that supports early-stage synthetic biology startups has named its first executive director.

BioWell, which was founded by First Bight Ventures, a Houston-based venture capital group, has announced the appointment of Paul Palmer as executive director. It's the nonprofit organization's first move in assembling its management team. According to his LinkedIn, he's served in the role since November.

“Paul was a clear choice for BioWell because of his combined experience at EY and engagement with Houston’s entrepreneurial community,” First Bight Ventures & BioWell Founder Veronica Wu says in a statement. “Working with large corporations and startups at all levels, he has successfully delivered value-based results for his clients.

"Equally important, Paul has an established relationship with the Houston business community and will be able to leverage his existing network to promote BioWell and our participant entrepreneurs in a public-facing role," she continues.

Palmer was formerly a partner at EY, where he worked on international cross-border tax planning, business development, assurance, and business consulting, as well as working with startups in collaboration with organizations like the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship and Texas Medical Center Innovation.

He joins the BioWell to execute on the organization's mission of "creating an ecosystem that provides hands-on business education, industry mentorship, research, and pilot infrastructure" for the bioeconomy, per the release. He will oversee fundraising, partnerships, sponsorships, and grant opportunities.

He will also lead recruiting for the BioWell's inaugural cohort and securing lab space, which is expected in the coming months.

“Utilizing the resources and expertise of First Bight Ventures, along with our recent EDA grant, BioWell is set to assist with innovation and industrial biology advancements for the United States,” Palmer says in the release.

In December, BioWell, secured $741,925 of the $53 million doled out as a part of the "Build to Scale" Grant program that the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has established. First Bight was one of 60 organizations to receive funding.

“With the formation of our leadership team, we’re making significant progress on building out the BioWell platform. We are excited about nurturing solutions in industrial biology and helping to establish Houston’s leadership in the global bioeconomy,” he continues.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Moji Karimi of Cemvita Factory, Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR, and Veronica Wu of First Bight Ventures. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries recently making headlines in Houston across biotech and medical device.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita

Moji Karimi joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how Cemvita has evolved with three distinct lines of energy transition businesses. Photo courtesy of Digital Wildcatters

A lot has changed since Moji Karimi co-founded his biotech company Cemvita with his sister Tara in 2017. In fact, a lot has changed just in 2023 — for Cemvita, for the energy transition, and for world as a whole.

In the past year, Cemvita has evolved its business to target three verticals, all within the company's mission of using synthetic biology to create solutions for the energy transition. Now, as Karimi explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast, Cemvita is a startup of startups.

While tackling the various verticals might seem ambitious, Karimi explains that they are all aligned with Cemvita's core mission and technology.

"If you think about it, everything we're doing has something to do with nature," he says on the show. "Environmental microbiology, biotech, and synthetic biology — it's now available, and we have the tools to do it. We want to be the company that goes and finds those applications and translates it from the idea and the science to the technology, and then scale it up into the engineer solution." Continue reading.


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

Led by CEO Thomas Vassiliades, a former heart surgeon, BiVACOR is based on a system of magnetic levitation. Photo courtesy

A Houston company with a breakthrough heart health tech has received a green light from the FDA.

BiVACOR, a Houston-headquartered medical device company, has received FDA approval for its Total Artificial Heart (BTAH) IDE first-in-human early feasibility study (EFS). The BTAH device itself is designed to take over all function for patients with heart failure. The BTAH is roughly the size of a human fist, which means that, while it could support an active adult male, it may also fit many women and children.

Led by CEO Thomas Vassiliades, a former heart surgeon, BiVACOR is based on a system of magnetic levitation.

“Our pump is just one moving impeller that sits in the middle of the housing where the blood is. Imagine an artificial heart — the container that has your blood — and the device spinning in the inside — basically a wheel spinning your blood to the rest of your body. The device is suspended by magnets — it's not touching anything,” Vassiliades told InnovationMap in a podcast earlier this year. Continue reading.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures

First Bight Venture's BioWell has received a $741,925 grant to continue supporting bioindustrial startups. Photo courtesy

A Houston-based nonprofit accelerator that works with early-stage synthetic biology startups has secured nearly $750,000 to support its mission.

First Bight Ventures' accelerator, BioWell, secured $741,925 of the $53 million doled out as a part of the "Build to Scale" Grant program that the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has established. First Bight was one of 60 organizations to receive funding.

The funding will support the BioWell's mission to establish a "vibrant bioeconomy" by helping startups scale and commercialize "through access to a unique combination of pilot bioproduction infrastructure," according to a news release from First Bight.on.

"Often times, early-stage startups gain momentum and hit important milestones, but ultimately find themselves heading toward the 'Valley of Death,' where progress is made on their enterprise, but no sufficient revenue is generated for the company's stability and longevity," Wu says in the release. "This 'Build to Scale' program's support will help offset these inevitable challenges in our bio-industrial space." Continue reading.

First Bight Venture's BioWell has received a $741,925 grant to continue supporting bioindustrial startups. Photo via Getty Images

Houston nonprofit accelerator receives grant funding to advance bioindustrial startups

funds granted

A Houston-based nonprofit accelerator that works with early-stage synthetic biology startups has secured nearly $750,000 to support its mission.

First Bight Ventures' accelerator, BioWell, secured $741,925 of the $53 million doled out as a part of the "Build to Scale" Grant program that the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has established. First Bight was one of 60 organizations to receive funding.

The funding will support the BioWell's mission to establish a "vibrant bioeconomy" by helping startups scale and commercialize "through access to a unique combination of pilot bioproduction infrastructure," according to a news release from First Bight.

"Startups at BioWell will gain access to a robust ecosystem, expertise, mentorship, and financial resources essential for successfully commercializing their bio-industrial innovations," BioWell Executive Director Paul Palmer says in the release.

The BioWell is still working toward establishing a physical space and has worked out of the East End Maker Hub in the meantime. The organization has partnered with Urban Partnerships Community Development Corporation, or UP CDC, which led the application process on this federal grant.

"BioWell chose to partner with UP CDC for the EDA grant, to continue the successful model that UP CDC has created at the East End Maker Hub for advanced manufacturing. UP CDC looks forward to continuing our partnership with BioWell in the UP CDC's BioCity project that will position Houston at the forefront of bio-manufacturing," UP CDC's CEO Patrick Ezzell says in the release.

First Bight Ventures Founder Veronica Wu established the BioWell to target high-potential startups, which usually have to overcome lack of funding challenges early on.

"Often times, early-stage startups gain momentum and hit important milestones, but ultimately find themselves heading toward the 'Valley of Death,' where progress is made on their enterprise, but no sufficient revenue is generated for the company's stability and longevity," Wu says in the release. "This 'Build to Scale' program's support will help offset these inevitable challenges in our bio-industrial space."

She shares more about her mission for First Bight Ventures on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the interview from March below.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Veronica Wu of First Bight Ventures, Lydia Davies of TEAMATES, and Liz Dennett of Cemvita. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from synthetic biology to consumer app development — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to outline Houston's opportunities in synthetic biology and biomanufacturing. Photo courtesy

Houston has all the ingredients to lead biomanufacturing — but it needs one thing: The BioWell. Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, introduced her plans for The BioWell last month. It aims to be a public-private partnership that aims to provide access to pilot and lab space, mentorship and programming, and more support that biomanufacturing innovators critically need.

"The way we envision The BioWell is it will provide a holistic, curated support for startups to be able to get across the Valley of Death," Wu says, explaining that startups transitioning from research and development into commercialization need extra support. The BioWell will provide that, as well as allow more engagement from corporations, investors, and other players.

Now that her plans for The BioWell have been announced, Wu is looking for those who want to be a part of it. Read more.

Lydia Davies, founder of TEAMATES

At the end of the day, Lydia Davies created her app to inspire new connections and fun activities. Photo courtesy of TEAMATES

Lydia Davies had an idea for an app that would allow golfers to connect when traveling or on nice weekends when other friends might not be free, and, amid peak COVID-19 shutdown times, she cranked out her early concept and design.

"I started building the app right then and there in this tornado of noise and chaos, and it kind of just became my sanity in that early COVID time because I had something to work on and build," Davies says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

The idea turned into TeeMates, which launched in 2021 and focused on golf exclusively, and evolved into the TEAMATES App, the current platform that now has a growing selection of sports and activities for users to sync up with others on. Read more.

Liz Dennett, CTO of Cemvita

Cemvita has some news regarding its C-level execs. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Cemvita, which is working with energy companies to decarbonize their operations has, has named a new CTO. Liz Dennett has been hired for the role, replacing Co-Founder Tara Karimi, who's transition to chief science officer.

As CTO, Dennett will lead the development of Cemvita's unique biotech products that tap into microbes to decarbonize operations on energy plants. Most recently, Dennett was vice president of data architecture and data engineering at Wood Mackenzie. She previously worked in tech and sustainability-focused roles at Hess Corp., Biota Technology, and Amazon Web Services.

“Working with biological systems presents a unique challenge but also a unique opportunity," says Dennett in the release. "It’s uniquely difficult to go from benchtop to in-situ reactors or oil wells with microbes and to achieve the kind of incredible results that we’re seeing in the lab. You need to build teams with deep specializations in chemistry, biology, energy systems, and geology.” Read more.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to outline Houston's opportunities in synthetic biology and biomanufacturing. Photo courtesy

Investor advocates now is the time to position Houston as a leading biomanufacturing hub

houston innovators podcast episode 178

Houston has all the ingredients to be a successful synthetic biology hub, says Veronica Wu. She believes so strongly in this that she relocated to Houston from Silicon Valley just over a year ago to start a venture capital firm dedicated to the field. Since then, she's doubled down on her passion for Houston leading in biotech — especially when it comes to one uniquely Houston opportunity: biomanufacturing.

While Houston's health care innovation scene is actively deploying synthetic biology applications, Wu points to Houston-based Solugen, a plant-based chemical producer, as an example of what Houston has to offer at-scale industrial biomanufacturing. Houston has the workforce and the physical space available for more of these types of biomanufacturing plants, which have a huge potential to move the needle on reducing carbon emissions.

"This is really fundamental technology that's going to change the paradigm and whole dialogue of how we are making a significant impact in reducing a carbon footprint and improving sustainability," says Wu, founder and managing partner of First Bight Ventures, on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Several aspects — government funding, corporate interest, advances in technology — have converged to make it an ideal time for synthetic biology innovators and investors, Wu explains on the show, and she has an idea of what Houston needs to secure its spot as a leader in the space: The BioWell.

First introduced at a Houston Tech Rodeo event at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory, The BioWell is a public-private partnership that aims to provide access to pilot and lab space, mentorship and programming, and more support that biomanufacturing innovators critically need.

"The way we envision The BioWell is it will provide a holistic, curated support for startups to be able to get across the Valley of Death," Wu says, explaining that startups transitioning from research and development into commercialization need extra support. The BioWell will provide that, as well as allow more engagement from corporations, investors, and other players.

Now that her plans for The BioWell have been announced, Wu is looking for those who want to be a part of it.

She shares more about her mission and what's next for First Bight Ventures on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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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.