This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Adrianne Stone of Bayou City Startups, Sarma Velamuri of Luminare, and Curtis Jackson of G-Unity Foundation. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health tech to nonprofit — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Adrianne Stone, founder of Bayou City Startups

Every month, Adrianne Stone of Bayou City Startups hosts a happy hour for startup founders to create a safe space to network, collaborate, commensurate, and more. Photo courtesy of Adrianne Stone

Adrianne Stone knows firsthand how lonely the startup founder journey is, so she set out to help create a community for founders when she started Bayou City Startups last year. Now, Stone shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast that her monthly happy hours attract over 50 attendees on average.

"Being the venture associate with Capital Factory in Houston, I'd seen what the Houston ecosystem had to offer. There were events — happy hours, coffee meet-ups, all these things," Stone says on the show. "But it was not just a casual networking event usually. I wanted a consistent community where I could show up and say, 'guys, I had the worst week,' to people who got where I was coming from and who could commensurate or lean in and help."

The next opportunity to network with Bayou City Startups is Tuesday, July 18, from 5 to 7 pm at Kirby Ice House. Read more.

Sarma Velamuri, co-founder and CEO of Luminare

Sepsis has been the No. 1 killer hospitals, but this Houston startup has a tech to help mitigate the risk. Photo via Getty Images

When he was an internal medicine physician, Sarma Velamuri watched helplessly as a friend’s 22-year-old daughter lost her life to sepsis. He had to tell his friend that she would not be coming home.

“There are 300,000-plus people a year who die of sepsis,” says Velamuri. “It’s important that people understand it’s not just those who are most susceptible to infections.”

This fact is not only unfortunate, but preventable. And that’s why Velamuri, who describes himself as “a recovering hospitalist,” co-founded Luminare in 2014. A full-time CEO since 2017, Velamuri, who runs the company with co-founder and CTO Marcus Rydberg, is based in the TMC Innovation Factory. Read more.

Curtis Jackson, founder of the G-Unity Foundation

For the second year, Curtis Jackson's program supported Houston student entrepreneurs. Photo courtesy of G-Unity

Chances are, you've heard of 50 Cent — his 2003 album "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" was a soundtrack to many. But Curtis James Jackson III, 50 Cent's real name, has done a lot since gracing your radios. He moved to Houston in 2021 and founded the G-Unity Foundation. In May, he wrapped on the second year of the G-Unity Business Labs, a business development incubator for Houston Independent School District high schoolers.

"I’ve spent years donating my time and energy to communities in need. I started G-Unity to do the same—to give back to kids so they have it a little easier than I did," Jackson writes on the website. "Team building and entrepreneurship are skills I learned along the way, but they are so important to develop early. I look forward to G-Unity supporting programs that are doing the crucial work of teaching kids to excel at life."

Around 150 students participated, and the winners are splitting a $500,000 investment. Read more.

For the second year, Curtis Jackson's program supported Houston student entrepreneurs. Photo courtesy of G-Unity

50 Cent's Houston entrepreneurship program wraps with $500,000 investment into student-founded companies

student hustlers

The 50 Cent-backed high school entrepreneurship program wrapped up its second year of operation after helping over 100 Houston-area students build their small business plans.

G-Unity Business Labs, sponsored by Curtis James Jackson III — better known as 50 Cent — and Horizon International Group, allowed participants to build their own small businesses from the ground up. This year's cohort featured a variety of businesses, from a Caribbean hot dog food truck to a financial literacy course on personal finance.

In its second year, the program encouraged innovation and taught business acumen to entrepreneurial-minded high school students, culminating in an opportunity to create their dream companies. During this 28 week entrepreneurial internship program, around 150 students from Madison, Worthing, Yates, Kashmere, Booker T. Washington, and Wheatley high schools learned how to transform an idea they were passionate about into a full fledged product they can pitch to investors.

The after-school program consists of three stages – the first 20 weeks are about getting familiar with business concepts and building connections with peers and teacher volunteers. The next eight weeks are spent in the incubation phase as students are split up into teams and local entrepreneurs lead lessons, helping them workshop their ideas into a fleshed out corporation, before finally the teams compete in Hustle Tank, where students pitch their ideas to a panel of celebrity and entrepreneurial judges. At the event in May, the panel included 50 Cent and Mattress Mack. The five winning teams are now eligible to split $500,000 in seed money for their companies.

Summer Reeves, VP of design of Umbridge, is in charge of managing the incubation phase and said she has noticed a significant shift in the ideas the student groups have come up with between the two cohorts of the program; the first year saw flashier tech pitches. But during the second year of the program, Reeves said the students sought to address issues they see in their day-to-day lives, including a group who worked to develop support services to aid formerly incarcerated individuals after they are released.

“This year, a lot of students were more on the practical side,” Reeves tells InnovationMap. “We actually had three teams that were focused on mental health apps which I think is a great example of what youth today are really focused on.”

Reeves started off as a mentor to four teams during the incubation phase of the program last year providing students with guidance on how to set up their business plans, create prototypes, and pitch their companies to investors. After three of her teams won the Hustle Tank competition previously, she took over planning the incubation phase and recruiting other local entrepreneurs to act as mentors.

“We give them recommendations on how to pitch and how to frame their pitch but they also have the ability to get creative so we had some students who did short skits — some that did raps and spoken word type things — lots of creativity,” Reeves says.

Patrice Allen, senior manager of G-Unity Business Labs, said they use the students’ individual strengths and creative thought processes to place them into their teams, including asking them in interviews at the beginning of the year to try to sell her a pen to understand their pitching process.

“That’s the question the students always remember,” Allen says. “‘Sell us this pen or pick something out and sell it to us.’ It’s the weirdest thing and they love it.”

In building the teams at each school, Allen worked with educators to make sure every team had students with a variety of communication and planning skills as well as financial awareness. But Allen felt students were most successful when they incorporated their personal interests into their product design. The first place team of Hustle Tank, Caribbean Hot Dog Boyz, was especially emblematic of this mindset as they combined one member's background of selling hotdogs with another’s Caribbean heritage to create a food truck that sells the unexpected combo of oxtail hotdogs.

The first place team of Hustle Tank 2023 was Caribbean Hot Dog Boyz. Photo via @gunitybusinesslab/Instagram

“To actually taste the food that they prepared was phenomenal,” Allen says “I have never ever thought that oxtails on a hotdog would be good but everybody was floored.”

Elizabeth Martin, director of communications and marketing for Horizon who runs the behind the scenes of funding, said students from the winning teams are now working on solidifying their business plans to qualify for the funds from the G-Unity foundation to develop their companies. Martin also said 50 Cent will retain a relationship with these teams, acting with varying levels of involvement depending on his deal with the students as anything from a silent partner to an investor.

“They do not walk home with $500,000 in their back pocket,” Martin explains. “We are investing in (them) — not giving — it’s an investment.”

The future of this program is uncertain as the Texas Education Association’s takeover of HISD is still in its transition phase but Martin advised to keep a lookout for an ABC Nightline interview of 50 Cent discussing G-Unity Business Labs, which is expected to release soon.

"I’ve spent years donating my time and energy to communities in need. I started G-Unity to do the same—to give back to kids so they have it a little easier than I did," Jackson writes on the website. "Team building and entrepreneurship are skills I learned along the way, but they are so important to develop early. I look forward to G-Unity supporting programs that are doing the crucial work of teaching kids to excel at life.

Rob Schapiro of Microsoft joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss DEI initiatives, translating between the tech in the energy sectors, AI, and more. Photo courtesy of Microsoft

Meet the innovator who's leveraging big tech to advance Houston's ecosystem equitably

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 188

At a glance, Rob Schapiro's resume might not make the most sense. A trained geologist with decades of experience in the energy sector, Schapiro made the move to Microsoft three years ago.

"I saw this disconnect between technology companies and energy companies — they didn't really speak the same language," he says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I thought I could help potentially solve this problem and work between the two as a sort of translator."

Now, as Microsoft’s Energy Acceleration Program director and site leader for the company’s Houston office, which is located in the Ion, Schapiro is deeply embedded in Houston's innovation ecosystem and is dedicated to helping advance Houston's role energy transition in a sustainable and equitable way.

Inspired by the murder of George Floyd, Schapiro says he sought out opportunities in his personal life to expand his contribution to the community as an ally, and he became a big brother in Big Brothers Big Sisters. Microsoft, too, is active in supporting the community through partnering with local organizations, including SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation, the G-Unity Foundation Inc., and more.

"This has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my job, that I've had the ability to leverage the might of Microsoft and my own privilege to have an impact on real people," Schapiro says. "Microsoft's mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more, and when you think about how you do that, it's really daunting. We realized that in order to do that, it's going to require a workforce that looks really different than it does today."

Microsoft knows too well the changing workforce, both from a diversity perspective and when it comes to artificial intelligence and other new technology. In its recent Work Trend Index report, the company found that, rather than being afraid of AI replacing jobs, the majority of the workforce is interested in applying AI to mundane tasks.

Schapiro shares more about his view of how AI will affect the workforce, plus what all the energy industry needs to focus on amid the energy transition, on the podcast. He also weighs in on how Houston's innovation ecosystem has evolved and where he hopes it's going. 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

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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.