Houston startup founders prepare to scale globally following Shark Tank success

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 205

Berkley Luck and Pedro Silva, co-founders of Milkify, join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the impact of their successful Shark Tank experience. Photo courtesy of Milkify

While Milkify's founders — husband and wife team Pedro Silva and Berkley Luck — secured partners on a popular business pitch and investment show, the entire experience almost didn't happen.

Silva and Luck, who got her PhD in molecular and biomedical s at Baylor College of Medicine, founded the company to provide breast milk freeze drying as a service to Houston-area families. Now, Milkify has customers across the country, but the duo didn't know if going through the process would be worth the investment and publicity, or if it would just be a distraction.

"The competitor in me wanted to be the first breast milk company to go on the show and to tell our story to the world — to show the world what my wife came up with that we thought was so great," Silva says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It was probably the scariest 45 minutes of my life."

But the sharks bit. Milkify's episode aired in April, and two investors — Gwyneth Paltrow and Lori Greiner — agreed to a $400,000 convertible note for 20 percent equity in the company. Paltrow even said on the show that she would have used the service when she was breastfeeding.

"It was empowering," Luck says of getting to wear her white coat on TV and share the story of how she came up with the idea of Milkify. "It was important to me when we went on the show to express that this had a scientific basis, that we didn't start this lightly, and that we've made huge strides in doing this in the absolute safest way possible."

Silva says they can't talk about some of the details of the show or the deal, but since then, Milkify has reached new customers, received additional investment interest, grown its team, and built out its plan to scale, the founders shared on the podcast. The team also shares its big-picture scale plans, which include tapping international partners to potentially take Milkify's tech global.

"Our vision is for every family to have access to breast milk formula, but instead of re-creating breast milk in a lab, we're doing it with mom's own milk," Silva says, mentioning a partnership with a breast milk bank that will convert its operation from freezing to freeze drying donated milk. "We're also working with groups in the UK and Australia to launch similar services using our patented technology."

"By the end of the year, we hope to see some announcements with those partnerships across the globe."

From the beginning, the importance of Milkify's team has been on supporting working parents to give them the best way to care for their families, Silva says. And for Luck — who says she's proud of the integrity Milkify has at its core despite competitors offering lower-quality and, in some cases, dangerous alternatives — she sees a lot of research benefits for the company.

"It's amazing to be at this leading edge, not just of innovation but of research, and to be able to still put out meaningful advances as an industry partner, not just as an academic," Luck says, adding that she hopes to be able to continue to contribute to the ongoing research into breast milk.

Luck and Silva share more about their Shark Tank experience, their co-founder strengths, and the future of Milkify on the podcast. Listen to the interview here — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Venture Houston is back next month. Here's what you need to know about this year's changes. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston VC conference returns to prioritize decarbonization, curated connections

can't miss event

In two weeks, hundreds of investors, corporate partners, and startups will convene to tackle topics of decarbonization, innovation, and investment. The annual event is also prioritizing something this year — connections.

In its third year, Venture Houston — taking place on Rice University's campus on September 7 — has a theme of "decarbonization in a digital world," but that's not the only thing different this year. The one-day conference has added on a unique event on September 6 to help engage around 50 investors with over 100 Houston startups.

The new activation is called Capital Connect, and HX Venture Fund will matchmake investors and startups for one-on-one meetings meant to spur collisions and collaboration.

"It's not a pitch competition — it doesn't have the stress of that," Sandy Guitar, general partner of HX Venture Fund, tells InnovationMap. "It's really just a way of connecting with a longer term horizon. We didn't want to limit it just to those who are currently raising, but actually include people who maybe just raised six months ago or are not going to raise for 12 more months, but might still want to be in the room."

The official day of the conference will also feature networking opportunities, including a breakfast hosted by DivInc, as well as networking breaks throughout the day.

"Based on feedback we received last year, networking was one of the things that was most celebrated about Venture Houston 2022," Guitar says. "All that space and time — the opportunity to allow people just to connect with one another. So, we're making sure that's a key part of this year as well."

Last year's keynote panel featured Gwyneth Paltrow, who shared her own founder's journey on the Venture Houston stage. This year's keynote address will be with Carmichael Roberts, investment committee co-lead of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which was founded by Bill Gates to support climate change innovation.

While the topic of decarbonization might sound narrow, Guitar emphasizes that this event will not just be for the energy industry. Business everywhere — but especially in Houston — has an increased calling to decarbonization.

"I do think it's important to see the decarbonization not as a hard tech event, but as everything that touches carbon, which is basically everything in our planet in just the coal previously," she says. "Everything we make and use touches the climate."

Guitar adds that HXVF expects a crowd of around 1,000 people to attend the event this year, which would make it one of the largest VC-focused events ever to be held in the region. InnovationMap and EnergyCapital are media partners for the event.

Gwyneth Paltrow of Goop took the stage at Venture Houston to discuss investing and entrepreneurship. Photo courtesy of HX Venture Fund

Superstar startup founder Gwyneth Paltrow shares entrepreneurial journey at Venture Houston

from big screen to boardroom

If you're a startup founder, you might have some things in common with movie star-turned-entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow, who took the stage at Venture Houston this week.

Paltrow was joined with her investor Dana Settle of Greycroft in conversation with Melinda Spaulding of Texas Southern University as moderator. The duo discussed everything from their working relationship to the opportunities they see here in Houston.

Recognizing that, at the time, her decision to start a company was a bit confusing, Paltrow explained on the panel why she felt drawn to business and entrepreneurship. She described growing up in New York, idolizing her friends' parents on Wall Street, and she connected the dots between artistry and entrepreneurship for the audience.

"It struck me recently that the soul of an artist and the soul of an entrepreneur are actually very similar," she told the crowd. "When you're an artist you have this idea that you want to put out into the world and you think you're the only one that can do it — you have something specific and unique to add and you know you're going to do everything you can to put it into the world and to have success.

"And so you have to have this like abject, ridiculous self belief and you have to persevere through everything," she continued. "All of those qualities are exactly what you need to have as an entrepreneur."

The big difference between being an actor and an entrepreneur , Paltrow added, actors have to wait for someone to give them a job — they can't execute unless they get the part.

"I loved migrating over to being an entrepreneur," she said. "I had very strong feelings and instincts and a passion to connect people to great stuff and information — and I could do it on my own terms. I could do it on my own timeline, and nobody was barring or impeding the execution of those things."

Making the transition into entrepreneurship in such a public way came with its own unique set of challenges for Paltrow. While getting in front of venture capital investors wasn't a challenge, getting them to take her seriously was, she said, not even just because of her fame. The people in the room couldn't understand her company.

"The companies that are doing things for women, investors are having a hard time understanding them. I think that's true through and through," she said. "And it was certainly true when I went to go raise money. Everybody took the meetings, I think to get a selfie for their wife. ... And then they'd be like, 'no, thank you.'"

Greycroft — specifically with Settle — was an exception to the experience. Greycroft invested in Goop in 2019 and HX Venture Fund invested in Greycroft in 2020.

"Not everybody's for everybody. And finding the right investor for your company is so important," Settle said to the crowd. "I think getting those really trusted signals from other founders and other funders is the best way."

Since the event was hosted by HXVF and located in Houston, the topic shifted to the Bayou City and what Paltrow has observed of the ecosystem.

"Houston really has an opportunity to define who you all want to be as an investment community. And I think it's really exciting. You have such a massive influx of people coming here. I think you're set up to to support business in a way that, you know, unfortunately, we don't do in California — we make it a little tough," she said.

"I think it really becomes about articulating who what the community, what what do you want it to be? Who do you want to attract? It doesn't happen out of thin air. There has to be intention around how you articulate what the mission is in Houston for this community and start to talk about it and welcome those kinds of entrepreneurs and and define what you want it to be," she added.

Besides her relatable hatred of Excel, Paltrow shared part of her journey that founders from all backgrounds can identify with — identifying your own strengths and weaknesses.

"I have to be confident in where my strengths lie, and be able to index into those and know that I'm the expert in that domain," she said. "In the group dynamic where everyone brings their expertise to the table is really what makes it work.

"We have this thing as women where we have to do everything and it has to be perfect. It's impossible and it's not true," she continues. "Know your strengths, lean into them, don't be afraid to articulate what your strengths are not, and ask the questions you need to ask."

Settle agreed with Paltrow, adding "The best CEOs that I work with are the ones asking the right questions."

Goop Founder Gwyneth Paltrow and venture capitalists Dana Settle and Mitchell Green will headline Venture Houston next month. Images via venturehouston.com

Gwyneth Paltrow, VCs to headline exciting upcoming Houston summit

coming soon

A Houston-based fund of funds is bringing back its venture-focused event — and this year, you might recognize the keynote speaker.

Venture Houston hosted by the HX Venture Fund will take place on Monday, September 12, at The Ion. The day will kick off with a conversation with Goop founder and Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow in conversation with Dana Settle, co-founder and managing partner of New York-based Greycroft. Goop is among Greycroft's portfolio companies, and HXVF, which deploys capital in to out-of-town VCs they have an interest and intention in investing into Houston startups, invested in Greycroft in 2020.

Some of the event's other speakers — from outside Texas as well as home grown —include LeadEdge Capital's Mitchell Green, Cart.com's Omair Tariq, Solugen's Gaurab Chakrabati, and many more. The full event agenda and list of speakers are both available online.

The program of the event is centered around key topics directly affecting Houston's innovation ecosystem, such as energy transition, sustainability, startup scaling, the future of health care, entrepreneurship, talent acquisition, and more.

“Venture Houston will bring together some of the most proven venture capitalists from the nation to the Houston stage, alongside Houston’s corporate leaders and most innovative entrepreneurs," says Sandy Guitar, managing director of the HX Venture Fund. "We are delighted to bring conversations around lessons learned and best practices to The Ion so that we can continue to nurture the incredible growth we are experiencing in the innovation ecosystem in Houston.”

Venture Houston is supported and sponsored by organizations including Insperity, Rice University, Greater Houston Partnership, Silicon Valley Bank, and Halliburton Labs.

"Houston's innovation ecosystem is experiencing a compelling transformation," says Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the GHP. "Venture Houston 2022 is the premier event for corporate leaders, venture capital investors, and entrepreneurs to plug into what is happening in the city. We are proud to sponsor and share the stage with leaders helping to illuminate the power of venture capital for Houston’s innovation ecosystem."

Registration is open online for the September 12 event.

The grant program will fund and support diverse business owners. Pexels

Houston-based digital business resource launches minority-focused, celebrity-backed grant program

in the minority

A Houston-based startup that provides digital resources for entrepreneurs has introduced a new initiative to support minority-owned businesses — and the program has attracted some celebrity support.

Hello Alice has launched Business for All, which will provide funding and mentorship to small business owners. According to a news release, half of new businesses have a minority founder and these startups have only received 2 percent of annual venture capital.

"As entrepreneurs ourselves, my co-founder Elizabeth Gore and I know how valuable it is to have a network of people and resources in your corner when trying to turn a small business dream into reality," says founder and CEO of Hello Alice, Carolyn Rodz, in the release. "All businesses start small, and through Business for All, we will provide 100,000 owners with the opportunity to receive grants and mentorship through Hello Alice."

Business For All will distribute up to $200,000 in grants sized between $10,000 and $50,000. The startups will be selected through a nomination process and will focus on founders who are women, people of color, LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, military affiliated business owners, and entrepreneurs with disabilities, according to the release.

Support for the program has come in the way of volunteer mentorship from celebs by the likes of Kristen Bell, Jean Case, Rebecca Minkoff, Phyllis Newhouse, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lisa Price, Zaw Thet, and more.

"I believe we should give every small business owner the tools they need to succeed. Business for All provides a combined voice, grants and mentorship to ensure success for every entrepreneur no matter their background," says Kristen Bell, entrepreneur, actress, and advocate, in the release.

Those entrepreneurs selected to receive grants will be invited to the inaugural Business for All Summit in fall 2020 for networking, mentorship, and business-focused programing.

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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.