Three Houston-based startups logged on to pitch digitally this week since SXSW was canceled. Getty Images

When SXSW canceled a couple weeks ago, event organizers were sent into a frantic scramble of how to salvage some aspect of their plans while also balancing lost deposits, canceled travel, and so much more.

Three pitch events associated with SXSW and featuring Houston startups went on in a digital capacity, and the social distancing has only just began. Michele Price who leads Startup Grind Houston says the Google-backed organization with locations everywhere is aware of the need for digital networking options.

"We are all going to be in some education training ourselves learning how to deliver value to our communities from the digital space," Price says during her video pitch conference call, "and how to take our face-to-face opportunities and events and work them over so that they can meet the needs of where we all are right now."

Here are the Houston companies who had to switch up their pitches for an online audience this week.

Footprint App takes 3rd place in Hatch Pitch

footprint

Climate change sparked a young Houstonian to create Footprint, an app that tracks a person's ecological impact. Photo courtesy of Footprint

On Monday, Houston-based Hatch Pitch was supposed to have its annual pitch competition from SXSW in Austin. Per usual, Hatch was going to stream the invite-only competition to online viewers. However, with SXSW being canceled, the program went completely online. The four entrepreneurs who were selected to pitch for the panel of judges presented online and each of the judges chimed in with questions and feedback.

The four startups that pitched were Los Angeles-based Mi Terra, Canada-based Byte Sight, New Jersey-based Well Power, and Houston-based Footprint. WellPower won first place, as well as the crowd award, Byte Sight took second and the audience award, and Footprint won third.

Dakota Stormer founded Footprint last year and said this was his first pitch competition. Footprint is an app that tracks the carbon footprints of users. It works similar to diet-tracking apps like MyFitnessPal, but it doesn't count the calories; instead, it logs the emissions of their eating and travel habits. Read more about Footprint here.

Hatch Pitch has plans to have a second pitch competition later next month focused on cybersecurity. It's, at the moment, still planned to take place in person at the Houston Cyber Summit.

For All Abilities pitches for Startup Grind Houston

for all abilities

Betsy Furler founded For All Abilities to use technology to support employees with disabilities. Photo courtesy of For All Abilities

With so many startups' plans to attend SXSW ruined, Startup Grind Houston planned an online pitch event. There weren't any prizes, but it was a good way to virtually network and share stories. Houston-based For All Abilities founder, Betsy Furler, explained her software company that aims to help businesses support employees with ADHD, Dyslexia, learning differences, and Autism.

The company, which launched in April 2019, was founded by Betsy Furler, who specializes in workplace disability issues. Furler created a strengths, needs, and preferences assessment to uncover the needs and preferences of employees to prescribe specific, individualized, inexpensive, and easy-to-use support.

Furler called for potential partners as she scales her growth.

"Ideal customer is the large companies who care about their employees," she says in her pitch, explaining that she thinks companies on the West Coast would be particularly interested.

Velour Imports presents for The Established's Startup of the Year competition

Velour Imports makes it easier for big resorts to get wholesale craft drinks. Pexels

The Established House has hosted a pitch competition every year at SXSW, and this year was no different — except that it went on online only. Fourteen companies from across the country pitched, including one Houston representative.

Velour Imports is a beverage wholesale marketplace that uses a similar concept as Uber Eats to connect resorts and hospitality clients to pallets of craft beer, wine, hard cider, and spirits from a digital menu and then watch orders arrive from any smartphone or web device. It's usually quite difficult to order craft beverages on a large scale, and Velour Imports provides that solution in an innovative, digital form.

"Luxury resorts and hotels have an annual challenge of creating exciting, new food and beverage experiences to attract guests," says founder Brooke Sinclair in her pitch, "but rarely do they have the time and resources to go shopping."

While Velour didn't win any of the top five spots in the competition, she did get positive feedback on her presentation.

This week's Houston innovators to know include Dakota Stormer, founder of Footprint; Jonathan Wasserstrum, founder of SquareFoot; and Spencer Randall, co-founder and principal of CryptoEQ. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Technology can make a huge difference, and Houston innovators are tapping into tech to disrupt various industries from real estate to sustainability.

This week's Houston innovators to know all have a focus on using tech tools to move the needle, whether it's to demystify cryptocurrency, track your ecological footprint, or find your next office space.

Dakota Stormer, founder of Footprint

Dakota Stormer created the Footprint app to help users be more conscientious of their personal contribution to climate change. Photo courtesy of Footprint

Dakota Stormer firmly believes that individuals can make a difference on climate change. And, maybe more importantly, individuals want to try to make that difference. So, he created an app to help. Footprint's algorithm calculates an annual carbon footprint, then averages it out to a per-week measure. This way, users know their goals — and the app sends them suggestions and challenges, like "meatless Mondays," to help reduce their emissions.

"For one person, it doesn't seem like there's much that you can do," Stormer says. "But the number of people across the world that care about climate change — it's actually a majority, at this point."

Click here to read more.

Jonathan Wasserstrum, founder and CEO of SquareFoot

SquareFoot — a real estate tech company with Houston roots — is entering the Houston market. Courtesy of SquareFoot

In 2011, Houston native Jonathan Wasserstrum founded SquareFoot to use tech tools to improve the commercial leasing experience in New York. Now, almost a decade later and fresh off of the closing of a $16 million series B funding round, SquareFoot is set to expand. First on the list of places to grow — Wasserstrum's hometown of Houston.

"Houston, in addition to being a leading market for business, is a city in transition," Wasserstrum says. "We've witnessed a growing trend of smaller companies cropping up, with startups showing that they're here to stay. I want SquareFoot to be a major part of the city's growth and evolution."

Click here to read more.

Spencer Randall, principal and co-founder of CryptoEQ

Cryptocurrency doesn't have to be a big, confusing risk with this Houston startup's technology. Courtesy of CryptoEQ

Spencer Randall got sucked into the cryptocurrency world. He found it all fascinating, and started attending — and even organizing — meetups in Houston. But he and his friends started realizing something that would turn into him co-founding CryptoEQ.

"There really wasn't a go-to resource (for cryptocurrency," Randall says on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What we wanted to do and what our mission today is to be the most trusted and intuitive analysis for cryptocurrencies."

Click here to read more.

Climate change sparked a young Houstonian to create Footprint, an app that tracks a person's ecological impact. Photo courtesy of Footprint

App created by Houston entrepreneur tracks personal sustainability

seeing green

Early in the morning on June 5, 2001, the tents in which Dakota Stormer and his family were sleeping started to blow over. Rain started coming down, hard and sideways, as the family scrambled to escape tropical storm Allison, which would later devastate the Houston area with flooding and kill 41 people. Stormer and his family made it home safely, but there were damages: $8.5 billion across the Atlantic coast, and a severe impression on Stormer that environmental issues were of deadly consequence.

Last year, Stormer's interest in environmental activism led him to make Footprint, an app that tracks the carbon footprints of users. It works similar to diet-tracking apps like MyFitnessPal, but it doesn't count the calories; instead, it logs the emissions of their eating and travel habits.

"It's kind of difficult to change your behavior immediately, but we try to make it easy so that your sustainable decisions can become a habit," Stormer says.

Climate change threatens the Houston area remarkably: Rising sea levels and warming waters will likely bring stronger and more devastating storms to the city — not unlike Hurricane Harvey, a category 4, which hit in 2017.

In 2018, Stormer joined the Citizens Climate Lobby to push legislation that could combat the effects of climate change in Texas. The Lobby appeals to both sides of the aisle, Stormer says, but getting laws passed still takes time — and many of the lobbyists wanted a way to engage themselves in the environmental efforts at a human level. That's how Stormer, along with three high school students as interns, came up with the prototype for Footprint.

Footprint users complete generalized surveys that sum up the carbon emissions of their day-to-day habits — how often they drive and fly, their meat intake and typical portion sizes. The app's algorithm calculates an annual carbon footprint, then averages it out to a per-week measure. This way, users know their goals — and the app sends them suggestions and challenges, like "meatless Mondays," to help reduce their emissions. This feature, Stormer says, can be used in organizations to create competitions that incentivize reducing everyone's carbon footprints.

"For one person, it doesn't seem like there's much that you can do," Stormer says. "But the number of people across the world that care about climate change — it's actually a majority, at this point."

Dakota Stormer created the Footprint app to help users be more conscientious of their personal contribution to climate change. Photo courtesy of Stormer

There's also a marketplace, which connects Footprint users to other companies creating sustainable products and organizations that offer environmental resources. The major thrust, though, of this early-stage project is education: Footprint is piloting in a Houston classroom, and Stormer has plans for more pilots across Texas to affect more environmentally conscious curriculum. Having recently graduated high schoolers on the staff, Stormer says, has helped to easily fit the app into classroom settings. They're also running a pilot in a local law firm, to test the app's effectiveness in corporate settings.

For now, Footprint is raising $65,000 in an angel round to run effectively and hiring another developer to monitor the app as it grows past its early stages. It has also recently formed a climate advisory council — made up of researchers, professors, investors, principals, and other education professionals — to engage even more people in the app's development.

Stormer's strategy is to create a community of people invested — financially, politically, and personally — in reducing human impact on the earth.

"When you build a community around it, you can have significant impacts on the future of our planet," Stormer says.

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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.