Gecko Robotics has over 50 Houston area employees working on robotics and software solutions for infrastructure. Photo via GeckoRobotics.com

A Pittsburgh-based tech company that has created a hardware and software solution for industrial asset management has closed its latest round of funding.

Gecko Robotics, which has a growing Houston office, has closed its series C funding round at $73 million. The round was led by XN with participation from Founders Fund, XYZ, Drive Capital, Snowpoint Ventures, Joe Lonsdale, Mark Cuban, Gokul Rajaram, and others.

Gecko's Houston office was stood up in 2019 as a way to further grow oil and gas industry customers. Gecko has over 100 customers within infrastructure, power, energy, and more, Troy Demmer, chief product officer and co-founder, tells InnovationMap. Gecko's customers include Dow Chemical, Marathon, Shell, and Chevron, to name a few.

“By opening up an office in Houston, we could not only better serve power generation customers in that region, but also really plant ourselves as a provider for oil and gas," Demmer says.

The company's technology includes wall-climbing robots that can collect data on customer's equipment. The software component transform the collected data into actionable solutions. Demmer founded the company with CEO Jake Loosararian to, according to their mission statement, "protect today’s critical infrastructure, and give form to tomorrow’s."

“Our goal is really to digitize these industries and make them more safe and environmentally friendly and really make it a place where innovation happens," Demmer tells InnovationMap.

Demmer says the goal is to double their headcount over the next 12 to 18 months following this fresh funding. The company currently has 180 employees, with around 50 to 60 people based in their Houston office. Gecko has offices in Austin, New York City, Boston, and Europe.

"Gecko's unique combination of robotics and software radically improves the ability to inspect, protect, and efficiently maintain critical infrastructure," says Tim Brown, partner at XN and lead investor in the round, in the press release. We are excited to partner with Jake and Troy as they extend Gecko's powerful technology into new geographies and industries, helping customers collect and make sense of physical data to optimize the safety and performance of their assets."

Riversand and Gecko Robotics are starting of 2020 with fresh funds for scaling business. Pexels

2 Houston startups land multimillion-dollar venture capital investments

Money moves

Two Houston tech companies are starting off 2020 with fresh funds in their pockets — to the tune of millions and millions of dollars.

Houston-based Riversand raised an additional $10 million last month, and Gecko Robotics, which has an office in Houston, closed a $40 million series B round.

In early December, Crestline Investors invested $10 million into Riversand, which specializes in Master Data Management and Product Information Management software solutions. In 2017, Crestline put $35 million into Riversand's series A round. According to a press release, the additional funds will be used to continue the software-as-a-service company's growth.

"Crestline Investors is a valued partner and has enabled us to deliver a best-in-class product that is seeing incredible adoption and high levels of customer satisfaction," says Upen Varanasi, CEO and founder of Riversand, in a news release. "We will use this additional capital to continuously strengthen our product through innovation, amplify our sales and marketing efforts, and accelerate growth in new geographies and market verticals."

Meanwhile, Gecko raised $40 million in its series B round in December to scale its business plans. The company has grown from 45 to 115 employees in the past year, per a news release. The company will continue to hire.

The round was led by Drive Capital, and had contributions from Founders Fund, Next47, and Y-Combinator.

"We are growing fast solving a critical infrastructure problems that affect our lives, and can even save lives," says Jake Loosararian, Gecko Robotics' co-founder and CEO, in a news release. "At our core, we are a robot-enabled software company that helps stop life threatening catastrophes. We've developed a revolutionary way to use robots as an enabler to capture data for predictability of infrastructure; reducing failure, explosions, emissions and billions of dollars of loss each year."

Gecko Robotics - industrial inspection Gecko Robotics focuses on industrial solutions. Photo via the release

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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.