This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Stephanie Campbell of HAN and The Artemis Fund, Larry Lawson of Proxima Clinical Research, and Vanessa Wyche of the Johnson Space Center. 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 — from medical device development to fintech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network and general partner at The Artemis Fund

Local investment leader talks trends in Houston venture capital activity

Stephanie Campbell joins the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to share some trends in early-stage investing. Photo courtesy of HAN

There were so many question marks at the beginning of the pandemic, especially for startup funding. Stephanie Campbell, who manages the most active angel network as well as a venture capital fund, says no one was sure how anything was going to pan out. Now, looking back on last year, VC did ok, she says on the Houston Innovators Podcast, and the Houston Angel Network saw membership growth.

"I think that given the markets with quite a bit of liquidity, people were looking for new and interesting ways to invest and make a return," Campbell says on the podcast. "In 2020, we actually grew by 30 percent and are up to 130 members of the Houston Angel Network and are continuing to grow through 2021."

Campbell shares more of her observations on the show and what she's focused on next. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Larry Lawson, co-founder of Proxima Clinical Research

Larry Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about his startup's recent exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, his investment activity, and more. Photo courtesy of Larry Lawson

When Larry Lawson started his career in the medical device industry, it was hard to get funding. The health tech founder and investor says if it wasn't oil or real estate, banks couldn't understand well enough to make a loan. So, he bootstrapped, raised from friends and family, and found venture capital support for his business endeavors over the years. Now, he's celebrating a $1.4 billion exit of his last business, Preventice Solutions, a deal that closed earlier this year.

The ecosystem in Houston has changed, he says, and he's seen it evolve as the Texas Medical Center grew and the Rice Business Plan Competition brought impressive student innovators from all around the globe.

"The health science community here in Houston is now known all over the world," he tells InnovationMap. "It's gonna just continue to grow and develop, and I hope to be a part of continue to be a part of it." Click here to read more.

Vanessa Wyche, director of Johnson Space Center

Vanessa Wyche is the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. Photo courtesy of NASA

For the first time, NASA has a Black woman at the helm of a space center. Vanessa Wyche has been named director of Johnson Space Center in Houston after serving as acting director since May 3.

"Vanessa is a tenacious leader who has broken down barriers throughout her career," Pam Melroy, deputy administrator of NASA, says in a news release. "Vanessa's more than three decades at NASA and program experience in almost all of the human spaceflight programs at Johnson is an incredible asset to the agency. In the years to come, I'm confident that Houston will continue to lead the way in human spaceflight."

As director of Johnson Space Center, Wyche now leads more than 10,000 NASA employees and contractors. Click here to read more.

The SEC expanded its definition of accredited investors, so now is the time for potential venture capitalists and angels to step up. Pexels

Here's what the new SEC accredited investor definition means for potential Houston VCs

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This month. the Security and Exchange Commission, or SEC, modified the definition of "accredited investor," with the effect of dramatically increasing the number of people eligible to participate in non-publicly traded investments.

The SEC definition of accredited investor establishes requirements for who may invest in private deals, startups, and private funds. These rules are meant to protect individuals from investing in assets that are high risk and have little publicly accessible information.

Historically, accredited investor status was limited to those that met certain wealth or income thresholds — specifically, a net worth of $1 million excluding primary residence, or $200,000 in annual income for an individual or $300,000 combined annual income for married couples. The SEC's thinking was that higher net worth individuals or higher earners likely have the sophistication to evaluate the risks and the ability to financially withstand potentially losing money they invested in a private investment.

However, with fewer companies going public and an increased interest in participating in private deals, startups, and funds many have suggested the accredited investor rule appeared more and more antiquated.

The SEC's new definition adds individuals with certain professional certifications (Series 7, Series 65, or Series 82 license) and "knowledgeable employees" at private funds, regardless of an individual's level of wealth or income.

Now, individuals with heavy involvement in and responsibility for investment activities and those with financial certifications are assumed to have the financial sophistication and ability to assess the risks of private investments. The SEC also added the clients and employees of family offices, which are investment arms of high net worth families. In addition, the SEC also expanded the married couples' income calculation to include "spousal equivalent" to capture non-married couples.

It remains to be seen whether these additions to the definition of accredited investors will add a significant number of new angel investors, as many of the individuals with such certifications already meet the previous net worth or income requirements. The startup ecosystem, however, has welcomed the move away from wealth and income criteria, as a good first step toward opening the private offering markets to more qualified individuals.

If you now find yourself meeting any of these qualifications of accredited investor, what now? The Houston Angel Network is a great resource to help you navigate these new waters, by providing a framework and network to learn how to evaluate investment opportunities. A common rule of thumb is that nine out of ten startups fail and will return zero dollars to investors. It is prudent to invest in several startups or through a fund with experienced and capable managers to get the needed diversification to expect a return on your investment in this asset class.

Angel networks throughout the country exist to educate accredited investors and provide a network of sophisticated and experienced individuals across industries to support due diligence. By working together and learning from experienced investors, newly accredited investors can avoid common investment mistakes and can develop skills to evaluate non-public investment opportunities.

The upshot of the expansion of accredited investors is that the SEC still expects such investors to be sophisticated and well educated about investment opportunities with high risks and rewards. Investors new to non-public markets should consider joining a network like the Houston Angel Network, where they can see hundreds of startups a year and learn from experienced investors.

Additionally, new accredited investors can engage in the local startup community by volunteering their services as a mentor at a local startup development organization like the Ion, Rice Alliance, Capital Factory, Mass Challenge, Plug and Play and many more. If you are considering investing in startups or a fund, please reach out to us at the Houston Angel Network for more ways to get involved and learn.

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Stephanie Campbell is managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund.

Over the past few years, the Houston Angel Network has doubled its members and continues to grow despite COVID-19's economic effects. Photo via Getty Images

Houston Angel Network sees membership growth amid pandemic

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While the COVID-19 pandemic caused some investors to hit pause on some deals, the Houston Angel Network, which has doubled its membership over the past couple years, has maintained its deal flow and investment, while taking every opportunity to connect members virtually.

"Nothing's really changed — in terms of our activity — other than the fact that we can't meet in person," says Stephanie Campbell, managing director of HAN. "We quickly pivoted to virtual."

Campbell — who also is also a founding partner at Houston-based, female-focused venture capital group, The Artemis Fund — says she still saw the interest and need on each side of venture deals.

"What I realized was, especially working at a venture fund, the deal flow isn't going away. Companies still need capital — and investors are still interested in looking at deals," Campbell tells InnovationMap.

HAN, which was founded as a nonprofit in 2001, continues to be touted as among the most active angel network in the country. The organization has five industry groups that it focuses its deals on — energy, life sciences, technology, consumer products, and aerospace.

At each monthly meeting, members hear three pitches. However, Campbell is vetting many more companies far more deals and passing them along the network as she goes. All in all, HAN investors do around 100 deals a year with an average investment of $100,000.

Since Campbell joined in 2018, membership has doubled from 60 members to 120. Campbell says it's her goal to get to 150 members by the end of the year.

Stephanie Campbell has led HAN as managing director since 2018.

"Despite COVID, we've continued to grow," Campbell says, adding that she's heard investors express that they have more time now to dive in. "People are very much still interested in learning about deploying their capital into early-stage venture. They're looking for a network of like-minded individuals."

Campbell explains that, with the switch to virtual pitches and events, HAN is congregating more than ever. In the spring, Campbell introduced a thought leadership series, called Venture Vs. The Virus, that brought investment leaders together to discuss how the pandemic was affecting venture capital.

HAN is also using this time to better tap into technology to connect members with startups. On the back end, Campbell says, she's looking to enhance digital engagement with members and also improve data reporting within the organization.

From increasing networking and educational events and growing membership, HAN is prioritizing growing its place in the Houston innovation ecosystem. Campbell says she sees the pandemic is causing investors and tech talent on the coasts to re-evaluate where their living, and that's going to benefit Texas. Houston is going to see an influx of tech talent coming to town, and that's going to translate to more startups being founded locally.

"We want to make sure that we are a big part of this transition toward a more diverse and resilient economy," Campbell says. "Now's the time to lean in on Houston."

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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

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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

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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.