This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sameer Soleja of Molecule, Gabriela Gerhart of The Motherhood center, and 50 Cent. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — software, education, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his startup's recent fundraise — and how he's planning on being at the forefront of the evolving electricity commodities industry. Photo courtesy of Molecule

A 9-year-old software startup has been reinvigorated by fresh funds and a new opportunity to emerge as a leader in enterprise software for commodities — especially for electricity traders. Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the company's latest funding round — a $12 million series A.

"The commodities industry is looking really hard at electricity as the growth commodity of the 2020s — renewables and conventionally generated electricity," Soleja says. "Everybody in our client base and in the market is looking at electricity. Well, we happen to have more than have of our customer base be in electricity."

Click here to listen to the podcast and read more.

Gabriela Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center

Houston entrepreneur recounts journey from communism to U.S. success in new book

Gabriela Gerhart recounts her journey from communism to American success in her new book. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Gerhart

Gabriela Gerhart remembers that day, back in 1989, when her teacher walked into her classroom in Czechoslovakia and announced that communism was over. Further, she told the group that everything she'd been teaching them was a lie.

Gerhart was stunned.

"It was confusing," she tells CultureMap. "You think to yourself, 'was I fooled? Was I indoctrinated? 'You have to understand, I had no idea there was another world out there."

Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center on West Alabama Street unpacks those feelings and others in her new autobiography, After The Fall, a story of growing up in Central Europe under communism and following her own wanderlust to the States, where she fell in love, got married, and built a successful business.

Click here to read more.

Rapper 50 Cent really means business. 50 Cent/Twitter

Rap star and Newstonian 50 Cent is giving back to area schools in need of help. The recently relocated rapper/producer/entrepreneur/rodeo wine bidder is teaming up with the Houston Independent School District and Horizon United Group to bolster entrepreneurship programs at Kashmere, Worthing, and Wheatley high schools.

He has funded the project with a $600,000 donation, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on May 17.

Dubbed the G-Unity Business Lab, the new program will encourage students to engage in MBA-level lessons that represent the full lifecycle of a product or concept, from idea creation, to market branding, to even running a company, a press release notes.

Click here to read more.

Gabriela Gerhart recounts her journey from communism to American success in her new book. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Gerhart

Houston entrepreneur recounts journey from communism to U.S. success in new book

RISING FROM THE FALL

Gabriela Gerhart remembers that day, back in 1989, when her teacher walked into her classroom in Czechoslovakia and announced that communism was over. Further, she told the group that everything she'd been teaching them was a lie.

Gerhart was stunned.

"It was confusing," she tells CultureMap. "You think to yourself, 'was I fooled? Was I indoctrinated? 'You have to understand, I had no idea there was another world out there."

Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center on West Alabama Street unpacks those feelings and others in her new autobiography, After The Fall, a story of growing up in Central Europe under communism and following her own wanderlust to the States, where she fell in love, got married, and built a successful business.

The Houston launch for the book is Wednesday, May 19 at The Motherhood Center from 4 pm to 6 pm. The official Austin launch happens on Thursday, May 20 at Central Machine Works from 4 pm to 6 pm. Both events are free, but audiences are asked to register. After the Fall is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, at Brazos Bookstore, and online.

In many ways, Gerhart's journey is like many other immigrant stories of coming to a new land and rebuilding a life. For Gerhart, though, it wasn't just about building a new life, it was learning that she had choices.

Before the fall
In her homeland, she'd been involved with a communist youth group, and had plans to rise through the communist party. When communism fell, her sense of how she saw herself was battered. All of a sudden, though, there were opportunities.

"Growing up, my friends and I all wore the same clothes," she says. "But it was because you would go into a store and there might be only three kinds of winter jacket."

With the fall of communism, Gerhart could travel far beyond her Czech roots, and discover all sorts of new things: new foods, new styles, new ideas.

"I was hungry for adventures and experiences," she remembers.

After the fall
She came to the U.S. in 1998, where she became an au pair. While she didn't have a choice of where she was sent, she says that she loved that she landed in Houston. The Bayou City would open her eyes to all the possibilities of what she could do and what she could be.

Gerhart describes herself as someone who is always challenging herself, so being an entrepreneur was a natural fit. She's also always been nurturing, which is what led her to study nursing and become a pediatric nurse. Combining her love of mothers and babies with her grit and determination, she built The Motherhood Center in 2000 to provide expectant and early post-natal moms with a supportive network and educational resources to raise healthy children, while not neglecting themselves.

All of it is outlined in After the Fall, in triumph and tragedy. Gerhart outlines her inability to have children, even as she was building her business into the premier destination for moms and babies. A stepmother and grandmother now, she says she has found great happiness in her life, chasing her dreams and adventures across continents and political changes.

An American dream
"My favorite thing about America is that there are so many opportunities," she says. "I am so grateful. It's really amazing how young America is. People don't realize, the basement in my house in the Czech Republic is 300 years older than this country," she jokes.

Writing her autobiography gave her the chance to reflect on that, as well as unpack her own feelings about communism and its fall. Growing up, she says, her parents never discussed their feelings about the subject; it was far too dangerous.

"A parent might say something to their child and the child could go to school and repeat it and all of a sudden, there would be a knock on the door from the police," she says. "Writing this book meant my parents and I could speak more openly about it, and I was able to see things from their perspective."

She hopes the book will inspire others to embrace their potential and pursue their own dreams. Maybe they'll be encouraged to start their own business. Maybe they'll re-discover gratitude for being Americans. Maybe they'll set off on their own adventures.

As for Gerhart, now that the book is finished, she's looking ahead to what's next. She'll keep expanding The Motherhood Center and its programming, and she's taking on speaking engagements in the coming months.

"I have a need to share," she explains. "And I'll keep doing that.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

This Mother's Day, The Motherhood Center's founder is looking back on 20 years of care for Houston's new and expecting mothers. Getty Images

Houston specialist reflects on innovation and technology's effect on pregnancy care

Guest column

Mother's Day this Sunday will be a very different kind of day for mothers across the world, and I found myself reflecting on the innovation and evolution of pregnancy care and the different options women have nowadays.

When I founded The Motherhood Center in 2000, I had one simple goal, which was to provide Houston's new and expecting moms with unparalleled support and guidance. Now, 20 years later, we provide a full range of services for parents across every stage of parenthood. My team and I have held true to this mission, and, as new technologies and schools of thought emerged, so too have we evolved.

The evolution of family planning

One of the biggest changes we have witnessed over the past two decades is people's approach to family planning. We are seeing a lot more women choosing to have children later in life. With all the wonderful technological advancements — such as IVF, fertility treatments and egg freezing — we have seen women focus on their careers and start a family at an older age. One unexpected result of this is kind of funny – we are seeing a lot more twins and triplets.

We've also seen an increase in involvement from fathers. More and more dads are taking paternity leave these days – we hope to see that trend continue to grow. They are also coming to classes and getting involved in the pregnancies. Often, they are the ones who call us to learn more about our services.

New technologies and products

Technology has prompted some of the biggest changes in pregnancy. There are a lot of devices that new parents can use these days — from baby monitors, breathing and movement monitors, and much more. All this technology routes directly to parent's smartphones so they can know in real time what is always happening with their baby. While we love that parents can be more informed, we also don't want them to become so dependent on technology that they stop trusting their instincts. It is our job to encourage them to trust themselves (along with technology) so they can be the best parents they can be.

Another way technology has affected our business is that we are now able to reach our clients 24 hours a day, seven days a week through our website. We get a lot of form submissions late at night – particularly for support with breastfeeding and sleep training. We might not be able to answer the phone at 2 a.m., but our website has the resources to support new parents no matter the time of day.

For better or for worse, we have seen a huge increase in the number of products that are available for baby and mom. While there are some products that we absolutely love, many of the new products that have flooded the market are not needed. Because of this, we created a boutique at our center to help parents purchase only the items they will use. We also provide in-person support for purchasing some of the more personal products like nursing bras.

An increased access to information

Just as there are more and more products out there for new or expecting parents, there is also a wealth of information available – sometimes too much. We have seen a lot of parents using apps and reading blogs that might have inaccurate information, since many of these platforms are not regulated. For instance, these blogs don't account for the parents' medical and personal history. Because of this, we often see parents with a lot of anxiety and information overload. We find our in-person and virtual classes taught by professionals using unbiased, medically approved information brings our clients a lot of peace.

This has been a difficult year for everyone — especially expecting moms and new parents. People can't go out and attend classes and many hospitals have had to cancel their pregnancy courses. We have taken this as an opportunity to launch Motherhood Center into the next 20 years.

We now offer virtual educational courses and fitness classes. These classes are available to support parents anywhere — more information is available online. We are excited about the potential to expand our reach outside of Houston.

With The Motherhood Center celebrating its anniversary in May, we are so thankful we have been able to support Houston's mothers for 20 years, and we can't wait to see what the next 20 years hold.

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Gabriela Gerhart is the founder of The Motherhood Center.

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Houston organizations launch collaborative center to boost cancer outcomes

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Rice University's new Synthesis X Center officially launched last month to bring together experts in cancer care and chemistry.

The center was born out of what started about seven years ago as informal meetings between Rice chemist Han Xiao's research group and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. The level of collaboration between the two teams has grown significantly over the years, and monthly meetings now draw about 100 participants from across disciplines, fields and Houston-based organizations, according to a statement from Rice.

Researchers at the new SynthX Center will aim to turn fundamental research into clinical applications and make precision adjustments to drug properties and molecules. It will focus on improving cancer outcomes by looking at an array of factors, including prevention and detection, immunotherapies, the use of artificial intelligence to speed drug discovery and development, and several other topics.

"At Rice, we are strong on the fundamental side of research in organic chemistry, chemical biology, bioengineering and nanomaterials,” Xiao says in the statement. “Starting at the laboratory bench, we can synthesize therapeutic molecules and proteins with atom-level precision, offering immense potential for real-world applications at the bedside ... But the clinicians and fundamental researchers don’t have a lot of time to talk and to exchange ideas, so SynthX wants to serve as the bridge and help make these connections.”

SynthX plans to issue its first merit-based seed grants to teams with representatives from Baylor and Rice this month.

With this recognition from Rice, the teams from Xiao's lab and the TMC will also be able to expand and formalize their programs. They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

“I am confident that the SynthX Center will be a great resource for both students and faculty who seek to translate discoveries from fundamental chemical research into medical applications that improve people’s lives,” Thomas Killian, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, says in the release.

Rice announced that it had invested in four other research centers along with SynthX last month. The other centers include the Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies and the Rice Center for Nanoscale Imaging Sciences.

Earlier this year, Rice also announced its first-ever recipients of its One Small Step Grant program, funded by its Office of Innovation. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

Houston physicist scores $15.5M grant for high-energy nuclear physics research

FUTURE OF PHYSICS

A team of Rice University physicists has been awarded a prestigious grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Physics for their work in high-energy nuclear physics and research into a new state of matter.

The five-year $15.5 million grant will go towards Rice physics and astronomy professor Wei Li's discoveries focused on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a large, general-purpose particle physics detector built on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a European organization for nuclear research in France and Switzerland. The work is "poised to revolutionize our understanding of fundamental physics," according to a statement from Rice.

Li's team will work to develop an ultra-fast silicon timing detector, known as the endcap timing layer (ETL), that will provide upgrades to the CMS detector. The ETl is expected to have a time resolution of 30 picoseconds per particle, which will allow for more precise time-of-flight particle identification.

The Rice team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas. Photo via Rice.edu

This will also help boost the performance of the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC), which is scheduled to launch at CERN in 2029, allowing it to operate at about 10 times the luminosity than originally planned. The ETL also has applications for other colliders apart from the LHC, including the DOE’s electron-ion collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

“The ETL will enable breakthrough science in the area of heavy ion collisions, allowing us to delve into the properties of a remarkable new state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma,” Li explained in a statement. “This, in turn, offers invaluable insights into the strong nuclear force that binds particles at the core of matter.”

The ETL is also expected to aid in other areas of physics, including the search for the Higgs particle and understanding the makeup of dark matter.

Li is joined on this work by co-principal investigator Frank Geurts and researchers Nicole Lewis and Mike Matveev from Rice. The team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas.

Last year, fellow Rice physicist Qimiao Si, a theoretical quantum physicist, earned the prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship grant. The five-year fellowship, with up to $3 million in funding, will go towards his work to establish an unconventional approach to create and control topological states of matter, which plays an important role in materials research and quantum computing.

Meanwhile, the DOE recently tapped three Houston universities to compete in its annual startup competition focused on "high-potential energy technologies,” including one team from Rice.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.