Newly launched Unlock Health, a partnership involving a Houston agency, delivers consulting, marketing, and technology services to health care organizations. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based digital and creative agency DECODE is now part of a new health care technology and services platform called Unlock Health.

The new platform came about through the combination of DECODE, which serves the health care market, and Bradenton, Florida-based Eruptr, an agency specializing in digital marketing for the health care sector.

The Nashville-based platform is backed by Greenwich, Connecticut-based Amulet Capital Partners, a private equity firm that focuses solely on the health care sector, and New York City-based Athyrium Capital Management, an asset manager that concentrates on the health care sector.

Unlock Health delivers consulting, marketing, and technology services to customers such as health care systems, physician groups, and specialty health care providers. Brandon Edwards is CEO of the new platform, and Shannon McIntyre Hooper is president.

DECODE and Eruptr will continue to operate under their respective brands and be led by their existing management teams. Houston native Kathleen Perley remains aboard as CEO of DECODE, which she founded in 2013.

“With the launch of Unlock Health, we will have the benefits of increased scale and a broader range of market-leading services and expertise to support clients as they navigate and compete in a rapidly evolving industry,” Perley says in a news release.

DECODE saw revenue three-year growth of 131 percent from 2019 to 2021, making it one of the country’s fastest-growing private companies during that span.

The new venture employs about 120 people.

“We recognize the tremendous potential and impact a trusted one-stop provider of integrated marketing, consulting, and tech enablement can have in breaking down long-standing barriers for health care organizations,” Edwards says.

He adds that the new platform will remove “the guesswork from growth” and help health care organizations “succeed now and in the future.”

It might come as no surprise that Houston, home to the largest medical center in the world, has many impressive health startups. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

4 Houston health startups to look out for

Health tech

Houston's growing life sciences industry has been a topic of discussion of late — and it's pretty obvious why.

In March, Houston was named the No. 2 top city for an emerging life sciences market, according to CBRE data. Houston was also named the No. 2 city for STEM jobs, per a report from American Enterprise Institute's Housing Center, which cited the city's growing life science industry as a factor. Even Amazon, which recently opened a Tech Hub in Houston, credited the city's life sciences as a reason for Houston's selection.

In fact, according to a report from the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston has over a fifth of the nation's clinical trials last year. With health care innovation abound in town, here are four startups to keep an eye on.

Integrated Bionics

Stephane Smith wants his company, Integrated Bionics, and its sports tech sensor to be a big win for Houston. Courtesy of Integrated Bionics

It may have taken a couple attempts, but Stephane Smith has created a booming sports wearable business that ships products across the United States and the world. Integrate Bionics produces the Titan Sensor — a wearable device that syncs GPS with video and provides athletic metrics at an attainable price. Most of the company's customers are soccer teams primarily in the collegiate space — with some professional and even youth teams. Smith says the company has a firm footing within soccer because that's where this technology really started.

With fresh funds from Houston-based Work America Capital, Integrated Bionics is on a path to scale and grow its product's capabilities.

"We're going to continue relentless innovation — doing things that no one is expecting and helping coaches with things not even on the radar," Smith tells InnovationMap. "We'll going to be rolling out new capabilities and features that have traditionally been relegated to high-end systems or that haven't even existed before."

Read more about Integrated Bionics here.

InformAI

InformAI can use its data technology to help doctors with preventative care and diagnoses. Courtesy of InformAI

Health care is one of the industries where data management might get a "needs improvement" on its report card. Hospitals everywhere have tons of data, and they aren't using it to their full potential. Houston-based InformAI is looking to change this within the Texas Medical Center.

Jim Havelka, founder and CEO, started the company in 2017, and created a new technology that allows hospitals and medical establishments better access to its own data – which translates into more effective diagnoses and preventative care. Havelka saw a need within the medical industry for this type of service.

"There were several things missing," says Havelka. "One was access to very large data sets, because it wasn't really until the last five or 10 years that digitalization of data, especially in the healthcare vertical became more widespread and available in a format that's usable. The second convergence was the technology, the ability to process very large data sets."

Read more about InformAI here.

Mental Health Match

Ryan Schwartz realized online dating was easier than finding a therapist. He created a tool to change that. Courtesy of Mental Health Match

If only finding a therapist was as easy as finding a date in a world where dating apps are a dime a dozen. Ryan Schwartz realized as he sat in a coffee shop with a friend making a connection online, it should be that easy.

"In two minutes she could have a profile matching her with a partner potentially for the rest of her life and I was sitting there for hours and hours trying to find a therapist," he recalls. "I thought it should be easier to find a therapist than a life partner. That's what sent me on my journey."

That journey reached a watershed last month when Schwartz launched Mental Health Match, a website designed to pair patients with their ideal therapist. The idea gained traction as Schwartz described it to people he met and found that many said they had experienced similar difficulties in finding the right practitioner for their needs.

Read more about Mental Health Match here.

Lazarus 3D

Lazarus 3D is using 3D printing to help advance surgeons' skills. Photo via laz3d.com

It's 2019 and surgeons are still using the same training tools they have used for decades: produce.

Two Baylor College of Medicine-educated doctors thought that sewing up grapes and slicing bananas was a bit antiquated. Drs. Jacques Zaneveld and Smriti Agrawal Zaneveld founded Lazarus3D to build a better training model — and layer by layer, they created models of abs and ribs and even hearts with a 3D printer.

"We adapted pre-existing 3D printing technology in a novel proprietary way that allows us to, overnight, build soft, silicone or hydrogel models of human anatomy," says Jacques, who serves as CEO. "They can be treated just like real tissue."

Read more about Lazarus 3D here.

TMCx is introducing a new opportunity for early stage health tech ideas. Courtesy of TMCx

TMC Innovation Institute introduces new early stage programming opportunities for health care workers

Alpha ideas

While the Texas Medical Center's accelerator, TMCx, accepts two cohorts of health care startups a year at various stages of development, the program isn't optimized for early stage ideas for companies.

Yet for years, the TMC Innovation Institute team has fielded questions from budding entrepreneurs over cold emails — and even LinkedIn.

TMC will launch a new program for these early stage ideas called TMCalpha. Lance Black, associate director of TMCx, announced the program at TMCx's Demo Day on Thursday, June 6.

"Alpha is the first letter in the Greek alphabet. It represents the beginning — the first step in your journey," Black says.

Through monthly events, TMC-affiliated entrepreneurs can meet with the TMCx team, learn startup best practices, pitch to professionals, and receive one-on-one advice.

"It's our mission to support those members in the TMC — those employees, those physicians, those affiliates — that are knee-deep in the problems and have ideas for solutions," he adds.

The details of the program have yet to be revealed, and Black suggested interested parties subscribe to their newsletter.

"Too many good ideas go undeveloped because people don't have a place to turn or know who to talk to," Black says. "Now they do."

Before and after the announcement, 19 different startups pitched to the crowd at the TMC Innovation Institute, representing the end of the accelerator program. The 2019 Digital Health cohort represented the eighth — and most international — cohort within the program.

Three companies within the cohort have announced completed raises totaling over $10 million. However, according to the pitches, that figure is likely even higher.

Houston-based Galen Data is growing its clientbase and just formed two new partnerships with medical device companies. Photo via galendata.com

Houston health care data company grows with new medical device partnerships

Digitizing health

Educated as an engineer, Chris DuPont has stepped outside his professional comfort zone to generate funding for his Houston-based startup, Galen Data Inc. DuPont's pool of technical contacts in Houston is "wide and deep," he says, but his pool of financial contacts had been shallow.

Overcoming obstacles in Houston's business waters, DuPont has raised two rounds of angel funding — he declines to say how much — that have enabled Galen Data to develop and market its cloud-based platform for connecting medical devices to the internet, including pacemakers and glucose monitors. DuPont is the startup's co-founder and CEO. Galen Data's platform meets compliance standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), cybersecurity organizations, and others.

Galen Data's patent-pending technology lets medical device manufacturers tailor the cloud-based software to their unique needs. DuPont says his company's software is geared toward medical devices that are outside, not inside, hospitals and other healthcare facilities. He declines to divulge how many customers the startup has.

Among the startup's customers is San Clemente, California-based Fresca Medical Inc., developer of a device designed to treat sleep apnea.

DuPont says his company's software allows Fresca to perform such tasks as proactively diagnosing problems with the battery in a sleep apnea device or collecting patient data to back up insurance claims. The software even can monitor trends among various medical devices, he says. Galen Data also is helping Fresca develop its mobile app for patients.

Another customer is Friendswood-based Spark Biomedical Inc., developer of a smartphone-connected device, called a neurostimulator, that eases the symptoms of withdrawal from highly addictive opioids.

Hatched within Houston-based Tietronix Software Inc., DuPont's previous employer, Galen Data launched in 2016 but didn't roll out its first product until 2018.

Galen Data's emergence comes as the market for internet-connected mobile health apps keeps growing. One forecast envisions the global space for mobile health exceeding $94 billion by 2023.

"We want to be at the forefront of that technology curve," DuPont says. "We might be six months early, we might be a year early, but it's starting to happen."

Galen Data vies for customers in a largely untapped market, since the majority of medical devices still aren't connected to the internet, according to DuPont. As a whole, medical device makers have been reluctant to delve into connectivity, given the compliance headaches, DuPont says. That's where Galen Data steps in. It's the startup's job, he says, to ensure its tech platform adheres to myriad compliance regulations.

DuPont says a medical device manufacturer easily could spend $250,000 to $500,000 to create its own compliant, connected tech platform similar to Galen Data's offering — and that doesn't include ongoing operational expenses. Galen Data's platform delivers the same benefits at a fraction of that cost, he says.

The startup strives to accomplish its mission with minimal staffing. Between full-timers (including the three co-founders) and contractors, Galen Data employs fewer than 10 people, DuPont says. As needed, Galen Data taps the software development talent at Tietronix, which owns a minority stake in the startup, according to DuPont.

"I'm very, very capital-efficient with our cash," he says. "I don't like layoffs. We'll never have planned layoffs."

If Galen Data continues to achieve its financial goals (it's not profitable yet), DuPont says, the company's workforce could total 20 to 30 within three years. He foresees opening satellite offices in Austin (a tech hub) and Boston (a life sciences hub) at some point.

As for additional products, DuPont wants to eventually build on Galen Data's existing platform by paving the way for data to be securely transferred from medical devices to electronic medical records.

Anchored in Houston, Galen Data hopes to be a player in what DuPont calls "the next biotech corridor of the United States," encompassing not just Houston but Galveston, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio.

For Galen Data to thrive in that environment, though, it must conquer what DuPont classifies as his biggest hurdle: raising money from investors in a region rooted in the oil and gas industry. In the first quarter of 2019, Houston startups collected less than 6 percent of the venture capital reported throughout Texas — far below what startups in Austin and Dallas reaped during the same period.

Ramping up investment in Galen Data will require educating local investors about the promising potential of the medical device sector, DuPont says. Meanwhile, he's begun hunting for funding outside Texas.

"It's challenging for a startup to raise money in Houston," says DuPont, who praises local entrepreneurs for their support of Galen Data. "We've done it, but it's been hard."

"If Galen is super successful, hopefully we can invest in other early stage companies," DuPont adds. "That's part of the vision."

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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.