Three Houston women "are redefining what it means to build and run a business amid the new normal.” Photos courtesy

A spotlight is shining on three future Elon Musks from the Houston area.

Forbes magazine recently unveiled its final installment of 250 entrepreneurs on the Forbes Next 1000, a list of inspiring entrepreneurs and small-business leaders “who are redefining what it means to build and run a business amid the new normal.” Among the 250 are three entrepreneurs from the Houston area.

“As we enter another pandemic year, entrepreneurs and small-business owners are finding new ways to thrive amidst ever-uncertain circumstances,” Maneet Ahuja, senior editor of Forbes, says in a news release. “The fourth and final class of Next 1000 entrepreneurial heroes is writing the playbook for not only achieving financial recovery but speeding past it. These sole proprietors, self-funded shops, and pre-revenue startups are proving that — through resolve, hard work, and solid planning — anything is possible.”

Here are the three Houston-area entrepreneurs who made the final installment of the Next 1000 list for 2021, per Forbes:

Vernee Hines, 28, co-founder, UpBrainery Technologies (Houston)
UpBrainery Technologies is a technology ecosystem that's aimed at disrupting educational and classroom norms through the use of its proprietary technology. Its marketplace provides an AI-driven software platform and research-based, results-driven curriculum to students, parents, teachers and organizations. Cofounded in 2020 by Hines and Ghazal Qureshi, UpBrainery has helped more than 5,000 students. Clients include Whataburger, Nasdaq, The Houston Rockets, The Girl Scouts of America, and Girls Inc.

Carolyn Rodz, 42, co-founder, Hello Alice (Houston)
A former investment banker with JP Morgan, Rodz channeled her funding experience into creating Hello Alice, an online platform that serves as a one-stop-shop for aspiring entrepreneurs, connecting them with funders, services and professional networks. She originally cofounded the Houston-based company with Elizabeth Gore in 2017 to serve as an accelerator for women-owned businesses. It's since grown to work with all clients, and has raised $8.5 million.

JoAnn Ajayi-Scott, 60, founder, Essence of a Lady (Missouri City)

Essence of a Lady started as a social club in 1989' Scott later reorganized it into a non-profit organization to match girls with mentors in the hope that those relationships would give them the help and support they need to graduate high school. To date, they have impacted the lives of more than 1,000 girls through the more than 400 women who have mentored them as chaperones, workshop presenters, sponsors and donors.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Forbes has identified 1,000 entrepreneurs as rising stars in the business world. And three of them call Houston home. Photos via Forbes

3 Houston innovators make Forbes list of up-and-coming entrepreneurs

next big things

Three Houston entrepreneurs are basking in the national spotlight.

The trio — Vernee Hines, Carolyn Rodz, and Siddhartha Sachdeva — were just named to Forbes' Next 1000 list of the country's up-and-coming entrepreneurs. They're among the 250 standouts who make up the second installment of this year's Next 1000 class.

Forbes says the year-round Next 1000 initiative "showcases the ambitious sole proprietors, self-funded shops, and pre-revenue startups in every region of the country — all with under $10 million in revenue or funding and infinite drive and hustle."

Forbes accepts nominees for Next 1000, and then "top business minds and entrepreneurial superstars" pick those who make the final cut. Among those minds are LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; baseball legend Alex Rodriguez; Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook; and Carla Harris, managing director of Morgan Stanley.

"Americans are launching new companies at a historic rate, aided by the accelerated shift in the way we live and work and an influx of technological tools that made it easier for anyone to start their own business from anywhere," Maneet Ahuja, senior editor of Forbes, says in a news release. "The latest class of Next 1000 entrepreneurial heroes offer hope for the future as we emerge from the pandemic on the path towards economic recovery."

Hines, Rodz, and Sachdeva are the initiative's three Houston representatives in the summer 2021 group.

Hines co-founded UpBrainery Technologies with Ghazal Qureshi in 2020. UpBrainery operates a tech ecosystem aimed at disrupting educational and classroom norms through the use of proprietary technology, according to Forbes.

UpBrainery's marketplace provides an AI-driven software platform and research-based, results-driven curriculum to students, parents, teachers, and organizations. So far, UpBrainery has helped more than 5,000 students. Clients include Whataburger, Nasdaq, the Houston Rockets, the Girl Scouts of America, and Girls Inc.

"Because I deeply understand curriculum and the theory of education, I understand the biases marginalized students face every day, and I co-founded UpBrainery with the goal of eliminating historical education biases, leveling the playing field for underrepresented students, and providing a technology solution that reaches even the most disconnected student," Hines says on her company's website.

Rodz co-founded Hello Alice with Elizabeth Gore in 2017 as an accelerator for women-owned businesses. Today, the Hello Alice online platform serves as a one-stop shop for all aspiring entrepreneurs, connecting them with funders, services, and professional networks, Forbes explains. To date, it has raised $8.5 million in funding.

"Hello Alice is what I wish I had when I started my first business 15 years ago," Rodz told the Golden Seeds website in 2020. "After a career in investment banking, I made a long, hard, expensive transition into entrepreneurship. It wasn't until I sold that company that I realized how much I learned."

"When I started a second business, I discovered networks and opportunities I didn't know about the first time, and doors opened up," she added. "With Hello Alice, our goal was to put all entrepreneurs on an equal footing, giving them the knowledge, opportunities, and connections they need to thrive from day one."

Sachdeva founded Innowatts in 2014. The company offers an AI-powered SaaS platform that helps electricity providers operate more efficiently and transition toward sustainable energy, Forbes says. Innowatts has raised nearly $27 million in funding.

"The COVID-19 crisis has brought challenges for the energy sector, but there will always be a need for accurate forecasting and real-time intelligence," Sachdeva says in a recent news release. "Innowatts has flourished by using its groundbreaking AI technologies to help customers build resilience and cope with the unprecedented shifts in power consumption caused by the pandemic."

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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

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.