StormGeo, a Houston-based weather intelligence provider, has partnered with Norwegian company 7Analytics to create technology positioned to revolutionize planning for floods. Photo courtesy of Kinder Institute

There’s no way around it: Houston floods. And with the deluge comes hurdles for businesses. The only real power we have in the face of such adversity is preparation.

StormGeo, a weather intelligence provider with its United States headquarters in Houston, has partnered with Norwegian company 7Analytics to create technology positioned to revolutionize planning for floods.

StormGeo debuted in Norway in 1997. In 2012, it acquired Houston company Impact Weather, says Bob Weinzapfel, a meteorologist and senior project manager of weather insights for StormGeo. Houston is one of 24 offices spread over 15 countries with more than 600 employees, Weinzapfel adds.

The team at 7Analytics, according to Weinzapfel, “Are a bunch of smart flood experts and machine learning experts.” Together, they are introducing a technology that Weinzapfel calls “a game changer” for Houston businesses.

7Analytics uses AI to give users an overview of Houston’s potential flooding based on a 72-hour forecast. “Any business like a grocery store or hospitals or even a refinery—any business with employees or customers, it’s important to know Are the roadways being flooded? Can my employees and customers get in?” says Weinzapfel.

StormGeo has long provided weather insights and guidance to businesses in Houston. Now, detailed maps provide real-time flood forecasting.

The maps forecast the probability of flash flooding in each subbasin, but perhaps more importantly, they can home in on clients’ buildings to show what inundation will look like in parking lots and nearby roads.

"Our product takes a real-time StormGeo weather forecast — for example, the risk of rainfall tomorrow—and translates it into actionable risk info, such as their site is at risk of up to a foot of flooding tomorrow with peak flood occurring at 2 p.m.," explains Jonas Toland, co-founder of 7Analytics.

Armed with such information, businesses can adjust operations ahead. For example, one client is a grocery store chain.

“They have business processes they have to get a jump on. The locations that have customers try to be the last to close and first to open,” Weinzapfel says.

That means that storm tracking can help with letting the store’s team know to purchase more emergency supplies to sell, schedule more employees to help sell them, and know when to close to keep those workers safe.

The Houston version of the solution is the first, but Weinzapfel says that the team is currently working to expand across greater Houston and then into Austin.

“We knew if we could do it here and do a really good job, we could do it anywhere using the same technology,” he adds.

There’s no question that flooding will continue to take place in Houston. But with StormGeo and 7Analytics’ Houston-area flood model, the people that serve us will be prepared.

A Rice University professor has developed a new early warning system and planning tool for the city of Houston. Photo courtesy of Kinder Institute

Rice University debuts new flood alert system for Houston

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It's no secret: certain areas around Houston are at a high risk of flooding. And risks associated with such natural disasters become even more substantial in the middle of a pandemic.

"What if first responders have to go to a shelter, a nursing home, or another facility where there's COVID, right in the middle of a flood," Phil Bedient, director of Rice University's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, asks in a statement.

His solution? To develop a new early warning system and planning tool for the city of Houston to help hospitals and other critical facilities on the watersheds of Brays, Sims, Hunting and White Oak bayous respond.

"The idea is to provide a tool that can help emergency managers better deal with situations with multiple risks," he says.

Dubbed the Flood Information and Response System (FIRST), the tool is a radar-based flood assessment, mapping, and early-warning system based on more than 350 maps that simulate different combinations of rainfall over various areas of the watershed. The maps are compared to a weather radar and stream gauges on the bayous to alert users of likely scenarios during a weather event.

FIRST was derived from the Rice/Texas Medical Center Flood Alert System (FAS), which Bedient created 20 years ago. The latest iteration, FAS5, debuted in 2020. Since the product's creation it has accurately alerted users in more that 60 storms and has warned hospital officials in the TMC of the threat of rising water in the area more than two hours before it would eventually occur, according to a statement.

FIRST was funded by federal CARES Act dollars and commissioned by the Houston Health Department, following concerns that overflows at wastewater treatment plants could potentially expose communities to the COVID-19, Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice, says in a statement.

"The FIRST model assessed what areas and facilities are at highest risk of overflows that could spread SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens during flooding and similar events," Hopkins added. "During a flood, the information gained through this system will inform the public health response to control the spread of pathogens that could make people sick."

CARES funds for FIRST's development were approved in the fall and Rice University undergraduates jumped at the opportunity to build out the product by the December 31 deadline, using hydrologic software and maps they had created with training from Bedient about a year prior.

"They performed herculean tasks," Bedient says. "Our deadline was hard and fast, and they helped us deliver the operational project and report on time."

FIRST was reported to have worked well during May's deluge, and will continue to be refined as more data, storms, and floodwaters arise. A demo is available to test online.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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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

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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

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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.