Veronica Wu, who moved to Houston from Silicon Valley last year, has launched a new venture capital firm to help accelerate synthetic biology startups. Photo courtesy of First Bright Ventures

Calling all startups with synthetic biology solutions — there's a new venture capital firm looking to invest in you.

Veronica Wu has announced the launch of First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups.

“Synthetic Biology aims to take parts of natural biology systems to produce organisms/cells/biological systems with novel or enhanced characteristics. It sits at the convergence of technology and biology, and provides us a powerful tool to address some of the biggest challenges humanity faces, like cancer/incurable diseases, sustainability and climate change," Wu says in a news release.

Wu has over 20 years of experience in managerial positions at tech companies like Apple, Tesla, and Motorola, and she served as a founding team member of McKinsey & Company’s Greater China office's business technology practice.

As an investor, Wu has been funded 300 early-stage tech companies in the past six years. She's seen her portfolio companies reach major accomplishments, including 34 unicorns, six SPACs, and four IPOs to date, per the release.

She's betting on synthetic biology by launching First Bight Ventures — the first and only VC firm completely devoted to this field. The firm has already struck up a partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks, a leading synthetic biology platform provider.

"The potential applications are far reaching in scope as well as impact.” Wu says. “Presently, we stand at a significant inflection point. Synthetic Biology is to 2022 what the ‘.com’ era was to the 90s.”

Wu is a relative newcomer to Houston. She made the move from Silicon Valley to the Bayou City in the middle of 2021. She plans to leverage Houston's market to incubate these startups locally, according to the release.

“Houston is well positioned to become a major center for synthetic biology with its existing talent, industries, and capital," she says.

These five InnovationMap stories were the most read of 2021. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Here are Houston's top 5 health innovation stories of 2021

2021 in review

Editor's note: As 2021 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. When it came to the health care innovation and technology — whether it's a Q&A with a health tech entrepreneur or a digital health startup raising funds — in Houston, five stories trended among readers.

Fresh off a $1.4B exit, this Houston innovator is focused on funding medical device tech

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

Earlier this year, Houston-based serial entrepreneur Larry Lawson celebrated the exit of his medical device company, Preventice Solutions, which he sold to Boston ScientificBoston Scientific in a $1.4 billion deal.

Nowadays, Lawson is laser focused on investing in the Houston innovation ecosystem, particularly in medical device, as well as working on Proxima Clinical Research, a contract research organization in the Texas Medical Center he co-founded with Kevin Coker.

Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about the exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, and his investment activity. He also shares how he sees the impact of COVID-19 and where Houston's burgeoning innovation ecosystem is headed. Click here to read the full article.

Houston founder talks growth and innovation in the pharmaceuticals industry

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on his rapidly growing compounding pharmacy business. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

When Shaun Noorian encountered what he felt was a poorly ran process, as an engineer, he built something better. Now, he runs one of the nation's largest compounding pharmacies that's at a pivotal time for growth.

Headquartered in Houston, Empower Pharmacy is opening two new facilities locally — one debuts later this year and the other in 2022. Ahead of this milestone for his company, Noorian joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about how he decided to start his company and how he's grown it from a small office to two 85,000-square-foot facilities — as well as how Houston has been a big part of his company's success. Click here to read the full article.

Report: Houston ranks among the worst cities for unnecessary medical treatments

Houston hospitals have been reported to have an excess of unnecessary health care tests and procedures. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston boasts of being home to the Texas Medical Center, the world's biggest medical complex. Yet Houston's medical community also holds a distinction that's hardly boast-worthy: It's the worst major metro area in Texas for unnecessary health care tests and procedures.

A study released May 4 by the Lown Institute, a health care think tank, shows hospitals in the Houston area collectively fare worse than their counterparts in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin for overuse of tests and procedures that the institute says offer little to no benefit.

To come up with its ranking, the institute looked at Medicare data for more than 1 million tests and procedures performed at over 3,100 U.S. hospitals from 2016 to 2018. Among the overused tests and procedures identified in the study are hysterectomy for benign disease, placement of coronary stents for stable heart disease, and diagnostic tests like head imaging for fainting.

"Overuse in American hospitals is a pervasive problem that needs to be addressed," Dr. Vikas Saini, president of the Lown Institute, says in a news release. "Hospitals want to do better, and these objective measures of performance can help them move forward." Click here to read the full article.

These are the 7 newest health tech companies to join TMCx

After a virtual bootcamp, the TMCx team selected seven startups to move forward in the accelerator. Photo courtesy of TMC

Last year, TMCx, the Texas Medical Center's health tech startup accelerator pivoted to digital programming.

The accelerator revamped its program to allow for an initial Bootcamp stage that would bring in a larger group of startups and then, after the boot camp, the program would move forward with a smaller group through the official acceleration process.

"We hosted 21 companies, representing six countries and 10 states, who each engaged with subject matter experts, clinical leaders, and corporate partners," writes Emily Reiser, senior manager of Innovation Community Engagement at TMC Innovation, in a blog post. "Over half of which ended Bootcamp in advanced discussions with hospitals and/or corporate partners." Click here to read the full article.

Houston biotech startup announces merger and $10M series A

A biotech startup focused on developing therapeutics for neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases has some big news to share. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston company has emerged from stealth mode to announce a merger and a round of financing.

Coya Therapeutics, a clinical-stage biotech startup that focuses on creating therapeutics for neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases, announced that it has completed a merger with Nicoya Health Inc. and raised $10 million in its series A. The round was led by Florida-based Allele Capital Partners LLC. Howard Berman, founder and board of directors for imaware, has been named CEO of Coya, as well as a member of the company's board of directors.

Coya's therapeutics uses innovative work from Dr. Stanley H. Appel, co-director of Houston Methodist Neurological Institute and Chair of the Stanley H. Appel Department of Neurology at Houston Methodist Hospital. The researcher has created a way to "isolate dysfunctional Tregs from a patient, convert them to a highly functional and neuroprotective condition, and expand these cells into the billions for intravenous reinfusion back to the patient," says Berman in a news release. This revolutionary work overcomes previous limitations in the field.

"I'm excited to have the opportunity to lead Coya at such an exciting and pivotal phase of growth," Berman says. "Through our sponsored research program in conjunction with Dr. Appel, we look forward to continuing advancement of this promising work and translating this work into a meaningful therapy for patients." Click here to read the full article.

Proxima Clinical Research has its New Year's resolution and is ready to start working hands on with health tech startups. Graphic via proximacro.com

Houston organization plans to launch health tech accelerator in 2022

ready to grow

A contract research organization based in Houston has announced its new accelerator program aimed at helping startups quickly grow their health tech businesses.

Proxima Clinical Research released details of M1 MedTech, which expects to launch early next year. The CRO has raised funds to launch and invest in members of the inaugural cohort.

“Our goal is to move these companies substantially forward in a short amount of time,” says Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima, in a news release. “Proxima is in a unique position to leverage our experienced team of regulatory, quality, and clinical experts. We won’t be working at arm’s length from these companies. We will be a big part of what they do every day.”

The program will focus on a small group of companies and the Proxima team will provide hands-on support, including instruction, workshops, and one-on-one mentoring.

“This will be a unique experience for all parties involved, as Proxima is also a young, yet established, company that is now creating a program to assist companies at an earlier stage,” says Larry Lawson, co-founder of Proxima, in the release. “Our experience in the CRO realm and ability to provide coaching in clinical, regulatory, quality, and go-to-market strategies will only strengthen M1 MedTech’s ability to support the success of emerging companies and provide more life-saving technology to the public.”

Kevin Coker and Larry Lawson co-founded Proxima in 2017. Photos courtesy

The accelerator will target Class II and III medical devices for its initial cohort. In the future, Proxima plans to expand to include an even more extensive incubator focused solely on Class III devices, according to the release.

“M1 will be a place where startups can go to receive concrete resources to further their development. The participant success is our sole focus, and the ultimate goal is to have a substantial impact on the ideation-to-market process for Class II and Class III medical devices,” says Isabella Schmitt, director of regulatory affairs at Proxima and a principal at M1, in the release. “Proxima’s specific expertise alongside our M1 partners will provide resources for all key areas of a medical device entrepreneur’s journey to market and beyond.”

The M1 MedTech applications will open online in the spring.

“We don’t view M1 as competitive to other accelerators, rather we believe it will offer a different experience. Our team will strive to create a personalized program where companies have a dedicated touch point throughout the process,” says Sean Bittner, director of programs at M1 MedTech, in the release. “We will also provide specific, tailored connections and resources vetted by our team through professional partnerships, not just a general list of industry contacts.”

BrainCheck has raised its latest round of funding. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston health tech startup closes $10M series B led by Austin investors

money moves

A Houston-based tech company that's tackling cognitive health diagnoses with its innovative platform has closed its latest round of funding.

BrainCheck, the cognitive health care platform for physicians, announced the closing of its $10 million series B funding led by Austin-based investors, Next Coast Ventures and S3 Ventures. The funding will be used to expand research and development, including developing a digital therapeutic and enhancing go-to-market capabilities.

BrainCheck's digital platform allows physicians to better assess cognitive function in their patients — whether they are elderly dementia patients or suffering from other cognitive ailments. One in nine adults aged 45 and older report subjective cognitive decline, according to a news release, and one in 14 COVID-19 survivors have neurocognitive disorder.

"We are at the forefront of improving access to cognitive assessment and care," says Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck, in the release. "With early diagnosis comes treatment and intervention. These funds will allow us to accelerate the adoption of our platform and work with clinicians to help more patients live better and safer lives, decrease caregiver frustration, and save health systems trillions of dollars. I believe that BrainCheck can help cognitive care evolve the way cancer care has since the 1970s, when chemotherapy was one-size-fits-all."

Katz co-founded the company with neuroscientist David Eagleman in January of 2015. Now, doctors at over 400 neurology, primary care and geriatrics practices — such as Cleveland Clinic, MD Anderson, and Johns Hopkins — are already using BrainCheck's 10-to-15-minute test, which is covered by Medicare and by most private insurers, to conduct cognitive testing. The FDA Class II Software as a Medical Device (SaMD), which means that physicians can facilitate in-person or even an remote assessment of their patients' cognitive function.

"BrainCheck is a breakthrough platform that has the potential to transform how we diagnose and treat cognitive impairment," says Michael Smerklo, co-founder and managing director of Next Coast Ventures, in the release. "The combination of technical sophistication and ease of use makes BrainCheck a perfect tool for doctors and health systems everywhere. I'm so impressed by what Dr. Katz and her team have achieved to date and am excited to support the team as they continue to innovate and scale."

Other investors included Nueterra Capital, Tensility Ventures, and True Wealth Ventures, as well as UPMC Enterprises and SelectQuote, which joined on as strategic investors.

"BrainCheck shows promise as a cognitive assessment tool that would allow patients to independently complete the test while allowing physicians to spend more time reviewing the results and planning care with patients," says Dr. Adele Towers, director of risk adjustment at UPMC Enterprises and a geriatric medicine specialist at UPMC, in the release.

BrainCheck closed its $8 million series A round in October of 2019, and the company moved into its new office in Upper Kirby following the raise in early 2020. The startup also has an office in Austin.

Pamela Singh, co-founder and CEO of CaseCTRL, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss what's on the horizon for her health tech company. Photo courtesy of CaseCTRL

Houston startup with AI-optimized surgical scheduling technology is ready to scale

houston innovators podcast episode 101

With so many moving parts in the health care industry, Pamela Singh says patients can go through all the pre-operation steps up to literally arriving to the hospital, only to find out their surgery has been canceled due to an admin error.

Singh's startup, which she founded with her husband and surgeon Dr. Ashvin Dewan, CaseCTRL is looking to prevent these surgical scheduling inefficiencies. On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Singh explains how the idea for the company came from an organic need Dr. Dewan saw in his practice.

"We decided there needs to be a better way to help surgeons, schedulers, and patients to have a better experience," Singh, who serves the company as CEO, says on the show. "Surgery is the highest revenue-generating event for any hospital, clinic, or private practice. And your patients are essentially your customers, so you need to give them the best patient experience."

CaseCTRL started with this patient-focused goal, but throughout development, Singh says she realized the overall effect of optimization. Especially, she says, when it came to COVID-19's effect on surgery scheduling. The company got its start amid the pandemic, and wasn't sure how the cancelation of elective surgeries was going to impact the startup's journey. But really, with the backlog of surgeries building up over different periods of stopping and restarting surgeries, a rising need for optimization emerged.

"COVID has had some sort of silver lining for us," Singh says, explaining that surgical facilities were looking for a way to catch up. "They realized the need for automating and streamlining their practice. And they realized that, instead of spending another four hours coordinating with patients and vendors, they could literally do it with the click of a button."

Now, in light of this growing need and awareness, Singh and her team is ready to scale. She says she is working with her team on integration opportunities and building out the tech to make it even more convenient to use.

Currently, the company is in the process of completing its Techstars accelerator and raising pre-seed funding. CaseCTRL was a member of gBETA Houston's second cohort and has pitched at several Houston innovation ecosystem events. Singh was even an inaugural finalist for the 2021 InnovationMap Awards. She says she's been surprised by how supportive Houston has been.

"The community here is diverse and, most importantly, supportive," Singh says, adding that at first they wondered if Houston had too much health care innovation and competition. "We realized the community in Houston ... really wants to see you succeed. The biggest pro is that entrepreneurial spirit here in Houston."

Singh shares more about her entrepreneurial journey and what's on the horizon for CaseCTRL, as well as her advice for fellow female founders in the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Houston-based Kare Technologies has raised fresh funds to spur its national expansion. Image courtesy of Kare

Houston health tech company raises $7.85M series A led by local VC

green for growth

A Houston-based health tech company has scored fresh funds from a Houston venture group to fuel its growth and to expand nationally.

KARE Technologies, a digital labor marketplace for health care workers, raised a $7.85 million series A investment round led by Houston-based Golden Section Ventures.

"The KARE team are well known in senior care and the caring industry at large," says Dougal Cameron, general partner at GSV, in a news release. "They are experts in their field and know this problem well. Their care for the industry and knowledge in the space clearly shows in the company's rapid adoption. They are providing a needed solution to an extremely important industry for our society."

The digital platform offers senior facilities and qualified caregivers a platform to post and accept work for hire. The company's founder Charles Turner had the idea for the technology after seeing hospitals struggle to get care workers during the 2017 hurricanes. Again, with the rise of COVID-19, that need for health care staff became even more apparent.

"The biggest issue we're facing — and this is even a non-COVID world — is staffing," Turner previously told InnovationMap. According to the release, 82 percent of caring communities that face chronic staffing challenges.

The growing company will use the funds to support its growth and national expansion.

"It feels good when you build something that the marketplace loves and helps alleviate a major crisis that so many of our operator customers are dealing with," says Turner, who serves as KARE's CEO, in the release. "We are eternally grateful that GSV has understood our vision from our very first day and has been such a committed partner to help fuel our growth."

Golden Section Ventures supports early-stage software startups with B2B applications. The VC fund recently launched its venture studio concept.

"We partner with founders who have built creative solutions that solve real customer pain points. Charles Turner, Bridget Kaselak and their team are great examples of this," says Adam Day, general partner at GSV, says in the release. "They lived the customer problem then pioneered a set of solutions that help their clients address the chronic and widespread issue of labor shortages in the caring industry."

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Houston food charity scores prestigious Amazon tech grant

high tech gift

One of Houston’s most cherished food charities has been recognized for its tech prowess. Houston Food Bank has been awarded the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Imagine Grant.

The endowment honors “the vision and work of nonprofit organizations as they seek to improve their communities and the world with the help of cloud technology,” per a press release.

Specifically, the food bank was recognized in the Go Further, Faster category for the launching of a cloud-native digital logistics platform to better serve vulnerable populations facing food insecurity (that insecurity was greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the food bank notes.

Each winner in this category receives up to $150,000 in unrestricted funding, up to $100,000 in AWS Promotional Credit, and essential engagement with AWS technical specialists.

The challenges of COVID and the pandemic forced the food bank to get creative — and it responded. The food bank began delivering meals in March 2020 as part of its COVID-19 response through partnerships with volunteers, staff, corporate donors, and organizations such as CrowdSource Rescue, Task Rabbit, and Amazon.

This pilot has been a success: to date, more than 2.3 million meals have been delivered to those in need, the food bank notes in press materials.

Tech-wise, the food bank’s Home Delivery Platform operates using a cloud-native serverless architecture which includes heavy use of AWS services (AWS Lambda, Amazon DynamoDB, Amazon API Gateway, AWS Amplify, and more), with a mobile web responsive front-end written in React/Typescript.

The client side is split across four responsive web applications, each with a different function: Home Delivery management, pantry management, client orders, and driver deliveries. All of these apps utilize shared components and APIs that communicate with each other based on the different user personas.

Pariveda Solutions serves as the technology partner for the implementation of this platform. The project is a capability expansion on top of an existing manual process to deliver food to clients.

Houston Food Bank applied for the Imagine Grant in order to enhance their process digitally, connect submitted orders to the client’s nearest pantry, and manage delivery operations more effectively, with an emphasis on time management and delivery logistics, the organization notes in a release.

“With the success of our home delivery operations, Houston Food Bank’s goal now is to scale operations to expand home delivery for greater reach and impact,” said HFB president/CEO Brian Greene in a statement. “Additionally, with the proposed improvements, we hope to shift to utilizing volunteers for this important service instead of third-party delivery providers, and to deliver food using the client choice model, where clients may select foods based on personal preference, cultural and dietary needs. We are thankful to AWS and Pariveda Solutions for providing their support and expertise as we continue to find new ways to solve the age-old problem of hunger and work towards our ultimate vision of a world that no longer needs food banks.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

New Ion exec focuses on building density, bridging the gaps within Houston innovation

houston innovator podcast episode 117

After years of being in the works, The Ion Houston opened last year — but not in the way it was always hoping to. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the 300,000-square-foot space in the renovated historic Sears building in Midtown slowly opened its doors to the Houston innovation community and brought back in-person programming as safely as it could.

Despite the challenges the pandemic posed, The Ion, which is owned and operated by Rice Management Company, had a lot to show for 2021 — 95 events on and offline, new coworking space opened, corporate partners built out their offices, and more. And, among the additions to The Ion, was Joey Sanchez, who previously served as director of corporate engagement at Houston Exponential. Sanchez has been in his new role as senior director of ecosystem at The Ion for about three months now.

"I'm focusing specifically on the communities of entrepreneurs, startups, investors — and trying to bridge connections among them," Sanchez says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "This is the biggest challenge in Houston and we want to flip that with density. Density is really the key to solving connections."

Sanchez says The Ion, and the surrounding Innovation District, is building out to be that convening space for this density of innovation and tech activity.

This month, The Ion is set to deliver on a few of the amenities that have been in the works. First, the investor studio, a place for venture capital investors to meet with local businesses, will open next week. Later this month a high-tech prototyping lab will be unveiled as well as Common Bond, which Sanchez describes as a must-visit coffee shop for Houston's innovators.

"That's going to be the hottest coffee shop in Houston to run into a co-founder, tech talent, an investor — it really is exciting," Sanchez says. "Bridging these connections has been made easier now that I have a home that's as large as this."

Sanchez is familiar with connecting over coffee. He launched a weekly coffee meet up for Houston innovators. He hosts Cup of Joey every Friday morning at Finn Hall in downtown Houston to give everyone in Houston — new or old to the tech ecosystem — a chance to connect. He says he's excited to keep this up throughout 2022 too.

As for taking initial steps into Houston innovation, Sanchez advises attending any of the 400 to 500 events — virtual and in person — that happen in Houston.

"Just show up," Sanchez says. "It's so underrated, and through a pandemic it was obviously tough to do, but just showing up is the first step."

Sanchez shares more about what gets him so excited about Houston innovation on the show. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes



Greentown Labs appoints Houston founder among 4 new board members

All a-board

Greentown Labs, a Massachusetts-based climatetech startup incubator with its secondary location in Houston, has appointed four new board members.

Of the new appointees, two community board members have been named in order to act as liaisons between startups and Greentown Labs. Greentown Houston's appointed representation is Nisha Desai, founder and CEO of Intention, and community member. The other new board members are Gilda A. Barabino, president of Olin College of Engineering and professor of biomedical and chemical engineering; Nidhi Thakar, senior director of resource and regulatory strategy and external engagement for Portland General Electric; and Leah Ellis, co-founder and CEO of Sublime Systems, who is the Sommerville location's community board member).

"It is important for a startup incubator to have leadership and insight from stakeholders including the public and private sector, academic and university communities," says Greentown Labs CEO Dr. Emily Reichert in a news release. "These leaders bring a wealth of knowledge relevant to not only climatetech but to our continued growth as an organization. Their voices will be important to have at the table as Greentown charts its course for the next decade of climate action."

Desai's current startup, Intention, is climate impact platform for retail investors, and she has previously worked at six energy-related startups including Ridge Energy Storage, Tessera Solar, and ActualSun, where she was co-founder and CEO. She's also worked in a leadership role at NRG Energy and spent several years as a management consultant with the energy practice of Booz Allen Hamilton — now Strategy&, a PWC company.

"I'm honored to join the board of Greentown Labs as a representative of the startup community," she says in the release. "This is a pivotal time for climate and energy transition. I look forward to working with the rest of the board to expand the collective impact of the Greentown Labs ecosystem."

The four new appointees join seven existing board members:

  • Alicia Barton, CEO of FirstLight Power (Board Chair)
  • Katherine Hamilton, Chair of 38 North Solutions
  • Dawn James, Director of US Sustainability Strategy and Environmental Science at Microsoft
  • Matthew Nordan, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Prime Impact Fund and General Partner at Azolla Ventures
  • Kathleen Theoharides, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  • Mitch Tyson, Principal at Tyson Associates and Co-Founder of the Northeast Clean Energy Council
  • Dr. Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs