This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Carlos Estrada of BioWell, Elizabeth Gore of Hello Alice, and Daniel Barvin of Coya Therapeutics. Photos courtesy

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 leader of a new bioindustrial accelerator, a fintech leader celebrating a big win, and an operations expert fighting for an ALS cure.

Carlos Estrada, head of Venture Acceleration at BioWell

Carlos Estrada, head of Venture Acceleration at BioWell, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share why Houston is already a great hub for bioindustrial innovation. Photo courtesy of BioWell

Bioindustrial technologies have a high potential for impacting sustainability — but they tend to need a little bit more help navigating the startup valley of death. That's where the BioWell comes in.

Carlos Estrada, head of Venture Acceleration at BioWell, says the idea for the accelerator was came to First Bight Ventures, a Houston-based biomanufacturing investment firm, as it began building its portfolio of promising companies.

"While we were looking at various companies, we found ourselves finding different needs that these startups have," Estrada says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's how the opportunity for the BioWell came about." Read more.

Elizabeth Gore, co-founder and president of Hello Alice

It's a win for Hello Alice and Elizabeth Gore, co-founder and president (right). Photo courtesy Cayce Clifford/Hello Alice

A Houston fintech company is celebrating the dismissal of a lawsuit from former Trump Administration officials.

Last year, America First Legal sued Houston-based Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance, alleging that their program to award 10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. AFL was founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board.

The case has been dismissed by a federal judge in Ohio, who said that the “Plaintiffs fail to allege any injury in fact that would support their standing to seek either retrospective or prospective relief," according to a news release from Hello Alice.

“This resolution marks a pivotal moment not only for our company but for the broader small business community in the United States,” Elizabeth Gore, co-founder and president of Hello Alice, says in the release. “Facing a labor shortage, heightened interest rates, and inflation, this country needs its small business owners, and they, in return, need the capital and resources that programs like Hello Alice provide." Read more.

Daniel Barvin, vice president of operations and patient advocacy at Coya Therapeutics

Daniel Barvin has a neurodegenerative disease in his near future. He joined Houston-based Coya Therapeutics to help fight for a cure to the aggressively deadly ALS. Photo courtesy

When genetic testing proved to Daniel Barvin that he, like his grandfather, aunt, uncle, and father before him, would most likely die of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS, and/or frontotemporal degeneration (FTD) in his 40s, he didn't slow him down.

in a guest column for InnovationMap, he writes "instead I chose to fight for every chance to change not only my life, but the lives of millions who are suffering or may one day suffer from neurodegenerative disease."

He joined Houston-based Coya Therapeutics in 2021 to support operations and patient advocacy at a company actively developing a therapeutic that can fight neurodegenerative diseases like ALS. Read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Jessica Traver Ingram of IntuiTap, Kelsey Ruger of Hello Alice, Katy Rezvani of MD Anderson Cancer Center. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to three Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with a health tech founder, advice from an AI expert, and a cancer-fighting innovator.

Jessica Traver Ingram, CEO and co-founder of IntuiTap

Jessica Traver Ingram, CEO and co-founder of IntuiTap, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share her company's latest milestone. Photo courtesy of IntuiTap

Jessica Traver Ingram has been captivated by the intersection of physics and health care for most of her life, and that passion led her to contributing to the establishment of the Texas Medical Center's Biodesign Fellowship. After helping make the program a reality, Traver Ingram then participated in it as a fellow.

The program selects fellows and then lets them explore the TMC's member institutions to find ways to innovate within unmet clinical needs, and the inefficiency and challenges with placing epidurals and lumbar punctures caught Traver Ingram and her cohort's eye. The process relies completely on the health care practitioner's ability to feel the spine with their fingers to make the injection.

"We kept watching the inefficiencies of these procedures, and everyone was like, 'you're right, we don't really know why we do it this way,'" Traver Ingram says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's really cool to be outsiders watching and observing, because you just see things other people don't see — and that's in any industry."

With that, IntuiTap was born. Traver Ingram describes its tool, the VerTouch, as a "stud finder for the spine." After years of growing the company, she can also now call it FDA-approved. Read more.


Kelsey Ruger, chief technology and product officer for Hello Alice

AI's true potential lies in its ability to enhance human capabilities, not replace them. Photo courtesy

Ready or not, artificial intelligence is coming. In fact, it's already affecting the workforce.

"With its ability to automate tasks, analyze large amounts of data, and provide detailed insights, AI offers an enormous opportunity for businesses of all sizes," writes Kelsey Ruger, chief technology and product officer for Hello Alice, in a guest column. "However, realizing this potential requires a strategic approach that positions AI as a powerful partner, rather than a replacement for human ingenuity."

Ruger shares how business can unlock AI's full potential via automation, augmentation, and autonomy. Read more.

Katy Rezvani, professor of stem cell transplantation and cellular therapy at MD Anderson Cancer Center

At Rezvani Lab in MD Anderson Cancer Center, scientists train immune cells to fight cancer. Photo courtesy

San Diego-based Replay incorporated a first-in-class engineered TCR-NK cell therapy product company, Syena, using technology developed by Dr. Katy Rezvani at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The company has announced that its first patient has been dosed with an engineered T-Cell Receptor Natural Killer (TCR-NK) cell therapy for relapsed or refractory multiple myeloma.

Rezvani, a professor of stem cell transplantation and cellular therapy, is the force behind MD Anderson’s Rezvani Lab, a group of 55 people, all focused on harnessing natural killer cells to combat cancer.

“Everybody thinks that the immune system is fighting viruses and infections, but I feel our immune system is capable of recognizing and killing abnormal cells or cells that are becoming cancerous and they're very powerful. This whole field of immunotherapy really refers to the power of the immune system,” Rezvani tells InnovationMap. Read more.

AI's true potential lies in its ability to enhance human capabilities, not replace them. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert shares 3 strategies for integrating AI into the workforce

guest column

The rapid advancement of artificial intelligence is forcing businesses to evaluate how they will manage the inevitable changes this technology will bring. With its ability to automate tasks, analyze large amounts of data, and provide detailed insights, AI offers an enormous opportunity for businesses of all sizes. However, realizing this potential requires a strategic approach that positions AI as a powerful partner, rather than a replacement for human ingenuity.

The British Council reports that an estimated 65 percent of today's students will eventually work in professions that have yet to be conceived. With the emergence of new AI, this projection emphasizes the importance of cultivating a versatile skill set that allows us to adapt to the ever-changing landscape. It also underscores the importance of having a strategy that embraces the division of labor between humans and machines.

What this means is that an AI strategy shouldn't just be about automation – it should also incorporate an understanding of the human-AI partnership that will be necessary for future success. By using the concepts of automation, augmentation, and autonomy, businesses can unlock the full potential of AI to boost efficiency, enhance decision-making, and ultimately drive continued success.

Automation: Delegating to the AI

We know AI can automate many tasks in a business. However, we should also look at automation from a strategy standpoint by asking, "What tasks can be fully delegated to the AI?" Answering this question might include considering routine, repetitive, and time-consuming tasks that shouldn't require human intervention or those that would be more susceptible to human error. The goal here should be to identify tasks that don't benefit from human nuance, meaning asking questions about time, precision, and compliance could offer even more value.

  • Time. What tasks are time-consuming and could be completed quickly with well-written instructions?
  • Precision. What tasks require precision that is difficult for humans to achieve?
  • Compliance. What tasks involve critical safety procedures or adherence to strict compliance that humans might overlook?

Augmentation: Using AI to boost your potential

Beyond automation, AI's true power lies in its ability to boost human capabilities. In this lens, you should ask, "How can the AI boost my output potential?" Think of AI as a skilled assistant that can analyze vast datasets, identify complex patterns, and present insights that aren't readily apparent to humans alone. The focus here is on tasks that still require a human touch but can benefit from computers' speed and data processing power. When exploring this further, consider asking questions about skill boosts, assistance, and focus.

  • Skill boosts. What tasks am I doing that I understand but need to be an expert at?
  • Assistance. What tasks still require a human's touch but could use processing or speed boosts?
  • Focus. What tasks are causing employees to spend more time on tools and less on goals?

Autonomy: The importance of humans in the loop

One question that comes up frequently when discussing AI is whether it will replace a particular set of jobs. My thoughts, however, are that while AI is remarkably powerful, the key to making all this work is understanding that not every task requires automation. In fact, some tasks would suffer from automation. This step requires you to ask, "Where are human emotion, creativity, intuition, and oversight essential?" Autonomy, in this sense, means digging into creativity, intuition, and uniqueness.

  • Creativity. Does this task require a level of creativity that a machine can't replicate?
  • Intuition. Does this task require emotional awareness that a machine can't discern?
  • Brand Uniqueness. Does this task represent a part of my brand that shouldn't be automated or machine-driven?

AI brings a lot to look forward to. It’s fair to say it’s on its way to transforming the world, but it's important to remember that the businesses that strategically embrace a human-centered approach to integrating AI into everyday business activities are the ones that will thrive. The three A’s: automation, augmentation, and autonomy, provide an essential foundation to begin this journey. By understanding the best applications for each aspect of AI, businesses of all sizes can discover areas for increased efficiency, more thoughtful decision-making, and a competitive edge that drives long-term success. AI's true potential lies in its ability to enhance human capabilities, not replace them.

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Kelsey Ruger is the chief technology and product officer for Hello Alice.

Following the round, Hello Alice is now valued at $130 million. Photo courtesy Cayce Clifford/Hello Alice

Houston tech platform raises series C round backed by Mastercard

money moves

Hello Alice, a fintech platform that supports 1.5 million small businesses across the country, has announced its series C round.

The amount raised was not disclosed, but Hello Alice reported that the fresh funding has brought the company's valuation to $130 million. Alexandria, Virginia-based QED Investors led the round, and investors included Mastercard, Backstage Capital, Guy Fieri, Golden Seeds, Harbert Growth Partners Fund, How Women Invest I, LP, Lovell Limited Partnership, Tyler “Ninja” and Jessica Blevins, and Tamera Mowry and Adam Housley, per a news release from the company.

“We are thrilled to hit the milestone of 1.5 million small businesses utilizing Hello Alice to elevate the American dream. There are more entrepreneurs launching this year than in the history of our country, and we will continue to ensure they get the capital needed to grow,” Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, say in a news release. “In closing our Series C, we welcome Mastercard to our family of investors and continue to be grateful to QED, How Women Invest, and our advocates such as Guy Fieri.”

The funding will go toward expanding capital offerings and AI-driven tools for its small business membership.

“Our team focuses on finding and investing in companies that are obsessed with reducing friction and providing superior financial services solutions to their customers,” QED Investors Co-Founder Frank Rotman says in the release. “Hello Alice has proven time and time again that they are on the leading edge of providing equitable access to capital and banking services to the small business ecosystem."

Hello Alice, which closed its series B in 2021 at $21 million, has collaborated with Mastercard prior to the series C, offering small business owners the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard in 2022 and a free financial wellness tool, Business Health Score, last year. Mastercard also teamed up with other partners for the the Equitable Access Fund in 2023.

“With Hello Alice, we’re investing to provide support to small business owners as they look to access capital, helping to address one of the most cited business challenges they face,” Ginger Siegel, Mastercard's North America Small Business Lead, adds. “By working together to simplify access to the products and services they need when building and growing their business, we’re helping make a meaningful impact on the individuals who run their businesses, the customers they serve, and our communities and economy at large.”

While Hello Alice's founders' mission is to help small businesses, their own company was threatened by a lawsuit from America First Legal. The organization, founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board, is suing Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance. The lawsuit alleges that their program to award10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. Gore calls the lawsuit frivolous in an interview on the Houston Innovators Podcast. The legal battle is ongoing.

Inspired by the lawsuit, Hello Alice launched the Elevate the American Dream, a grant program that's highlighting small businesses living out their American dreams. The first 14 grants have already been distributed, and Hello Alice plans to award more grants over the next several weeks, putting their grant funding at over $40 million.


Houston House at SXSW 2024 featured conversations about startup scaling, tips from CEOs, and more. Photo via Allie Danziger/LinkedIn

Overheard: Innovators sound off on future of work, converging industries at Houston House at SXSW 2024

Eavesdropping in Austin

Houston innovators talked big topics at SXSW 2024 — from the startup scaling and converging industries to the future of work.

Houston House, which was put on by the Greater Houston Partnership on March 11, hosted four panels full of experts from Houston. If you missed the day-long activation, here are some highlights from the experts who each commented on the future of the Bayou City when it comes to startups, technology, innovation, and the next generation's workforce.

"When we think about Houston, we think about access to at-scale infrastructure, amenities, and workforce and talent pools."

— Remington Tonar, co-founder and chief growth officer at Cart.com, says about why the company chose to return its headquarters back to Houston last year. One of these amenities, Tonar explained, is Houston's global airports.

"If New York and Austin had a baby, it would be Houston, because you have friendly people with a big-city culture."

— Mitra Miller, vice president and board member of Houston Angel Network, says, adding that Houston has a cost efficiency to it, which should be at the forefront of founders' minds when considering where to locate.

"We are not only attracting global talents, we are also attracting global wealth and foreign investments because we are the rising city of the future. We are the global launch pad where you can scale internationally very quickly."

— Sunny Zhang, founder of TrueLeap, says adding how there's a redistribution of global workforce happening when you consider ongoing global affairs.

"We overwhelmingly as a company, and my co-founder would agree, knew we had to go the Houston path. And we started funneling a lot more resources here."

— Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, says, explaining that the pandemic helped equalize the talent across the country, and this has been to the benefit of cities like Houston.

"Houston is here with arms open, welcoming people and actively recruiting."

— Sean Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Amperon, says, emphasizing how Texas has made moves to being business friendly. Amperon was founded in New York, before moving to Houston a couple years ago.

"There is a revolution starting to happen in Houston right now."

— Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, says, first commenting on the momentum from Rice University, where his company's technology originates from. But, as he adds, when you compare the ecosystem when the startup was founded in 2019 to where it's at now, "there is so much more happening."

"Houston has a critical mass in terms of aerospace."

— Stephanie Munez Murphy of Aegus Aerospace says, saying specifically that NASA's Johnson Space Center holds some responsibility for that. "JSC is the home of opening up space commercialization."

"There's diversity in industries people are coming from, but also in terms of experience and expertise that (Houstonians) have."

— Robyn Cardwell of Omniscience says, adding that Houston's diversity goes further than just where people originate from. "Houston has all these pieces put together ... for growing and scaling organizations," she adds.

"I've worked with thousands of students in Houston who are actively looking to better themselves and grow their career post college or post high school and go into the workforce."

— Allie Danziger of Ascent Funding says, adding that Gen Z, which is already entering the workforce, is entrepreneurial and ready to change the world. "Seeing the energy of Houstonians is just thrilling," she adds.

"We're working together in the Houston community. ... There are so many opportunities to collaborate but we need conveners." 

— Stacy Putman of INEOS says, adding that within industry there has been a lack of discussion and collaboration because of competition. But, as she's observing, that's changing thanks to conveners at colleges or at the Greater Houston Partnership.

"The opportunity for Houston is that everybody has to step up to be in some way, shape, or form helping us with this."

— Raj Salhotra of Momentum Education says about supporting the future workforce of Houston, including low-income household students.

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Houston expert: How adopting business strategies in the education sector can improve results

houston voices

It’s no secret: K-12 public schools in the U.S. face major challenges. Resources are shrinking. Costs are climbing. Teachers are battling burnout. Student outcomes are declining.

There are many areas of concern.

Some difficulties are intangible, inescapable and made worse by crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Some can be fixed or alleviated by wisely allocating resources. And others — like a lack of strategic focus — can be avoided altogether.

It’s this final area, strategic focus, that researchers Vikas Mittal (Rice Business) and Jihye Jung (UT-San Antonio) address in a groundbreaking study. According to Mittal and Jung, superintendents and principals misallocate vast amounts of time and resources trying to appease their many stakeholders — students, parents, teachers, board trustees, community leaders, state evaluators, college recruiters, potential employers, etc.

Instead, Mittal and Jung show, administrators need to put their entire focus on one key stakeholder — the “customer,” i.e. students and families.

It may sound strange to call students and families “customers” in the context of public education. After all, 5th-period Spanish isn’t like buying an iPhone or fast food. The classroom is not transactional. Students and caregivers are part of a broader relational context that most directly involves teachers and peers. And students are expected to contribute to that context.

But K-12 public funds are tied to enrollment and attendance numbers. This means the success or failure of a school or school district ultimately comes down to “customer” satisfaction.

Beware the Stakeholder Appeasement Trap

Here’s what happens when students and families become dissatisfied with their school:

As conditions deteriorate, families (who can afford to) may choose to homeschool or move their children to private or better-performing public schools. As a result, enrollment revenue decreases, which forces administrators to cut costs. Cut costs lead to worsened performance and lower satisfaction among students and families. Lower satisfaction leads to further enrollment loss, which leads to more cost-cutting. And so on. (Schools need about 500-600 students to break even.)

It’s a vicious downward spiral, and it’s not unusual for schools to become trapped in it. To avoid this vortex, administrators end up adopting a “spray and pray” or “adopt and hope” approach, pursuing various stakeholder agendas in hopes that one of them will be the key to institutional success. Group A wants stronger security. Group B wants improved internet access. Group C wants better facilities. Group D wants to expand athletics.

It’s an understandable impulse to make everyone happy. However, Mittal and Jung find that the “stakeholder appeasement” approach dilutes strategic focus, wastes resources and creates a bloat of ineffective initiatives.

Initiative bloat isn't a benign problem. The labor of implementing programs inevitably falls on teachers and frontline staff, which can result in mediocre performance and burnout. As initiatives multiple over time, communication lines become strained and, distracted by the administration's efforts to please everyone, teachers and frontline staff fail to satisfy students and families.

Pay Attention to Lift Potential

Using data from administrator interviews and more than 10,000 parent surveys, Mittal and Jung find that students and families only value a few strategic areas. By far the most important is family and community engagement, followed by academics and teachers. The least important, somewhat surprisingly, is extracurriculars like athletics programs.

The assumption that athletics would be high on the list of student and family priorities raises a crucial point in the study. Mittal and Jung note that it’s a serious error to assume that the more a strategic area is mentioned the more it drives customer value.

“Conflating the two — salience and lift potential — is the single biggest factor that can mislead strategy planning,” the researchers say.

A customer-focused strategy prioritizes lift potential — meaning it allocates budgets, people and time to the areas that have the highest capacity to increase customer value, as measured by customer satisfaction. If family and community engagement is the most important strategic area, then savvy administrators will invest in the “execution levers” that improve it.

For instance, Mittal and Jung find that allowing input on school policies is the most effective lever for demonstrating family and community engagement. Another important strategic area is improving the quality of teachers, and one of the most effective ways of doing this is to emphasize their academic qualifications.

Just as important as instituting effective customer-focused initiatives is de-emphasizing those that are ineffective. It can be a difficult process to stop and de-emphasize initiatives, however ineffective. But ultimately, the benefit is that teachers and frontline staff will be able to concentrate on the execution levers that matter.

This strategic transformation can’t happen overnight. Developing the framework will require a school district 18 to 24 months, Mittal and Jung estimate. Embedding it into practice can take an additional 12 to 18 months. For example, it would involve changing the way senior administrators, school principals and teachers are held accountable. Instead of emphasizing standardized test scores, which do not add to customer satisfaction, it’s more effective to concentrate on input factors that directly impact the quality of academics and learning.

To help schools develop and implement a customer-focused strategy, future research can focus on frameworks for guiding schools to maximize the areas of value that students and families care about most.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. For more, see Mittal and Jung, “Revitalizing educational institutions through customer focus.” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science (2024): https://doi.org/10.1007/s11747-024-01007-y.

Houston-area energy tech startup takes first place in DOE competition

winner, winner

Four startups from across the country won over $160,000 in cash prizes from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions earlier this month, and a Houston-area company claimed the top prize.

Hertha Metals, based in Conroe, won first place at the 2024 Summer Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) Startup Pitch Competition. The program honors and supports clean energy innovators nominated by clean technology business incubators.

“The EPIC Pitch Competition is a unique opportunity for start ups to highlight their technology, get on the main stage, and receive direct funding,” DOE Chief Commercialization Officer and Director of OTT Vanessa Chan says in a news release. “The startup pitch winners have honed their entrepreneurial skills and demonstrated a critical understanding of their technological impacts, targeted markets, and scalable strategies.”

Focused on environmentally responsible steel, Hertha Metals won the $100,000 prize. The company's steelmaking process reduces emissions by 95 percent, per the news release, while remaining financially accessible. Hertha Metals was nominated by Greentown Labs, which won $25,000 for its nomination.

The program's other 2024 winners included:

Hertha Metals was founded by Laureen Meroueh, a mechanical engineer and materials scientist, in 2022. A Greentown Houston member, the company is also currently in the inaugural cohort of the Breakthrough Energy Innovator Fellows.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston Airports to explore autonomous, fully electric air taxis in Houston region

taking flight

A fleet of electric and autonomous air taxis is expected to take flight in Houston, thanks to a partnership between a California startup and the Houston Airport System.

HAS announced a Memorandum of Understanding with Wisk Aero, a fully-owned subsidiary of Boeing, which recently announced a similar partnership with the city of Sugar Land. For the next year, the company will identify vertiport infrastructure at Houston's three airports — George Bush Intercontinental Airport, William P. Hobby Airport, and Ellington Airport.

“During my time in the Texas senate, I voted for legislation supporting advanced air mobility. This public-private partnership marks a significant step forward for the City of Houston as we invest in innovative and sustainable modes of air transportation,” Houston Mayor John Whitmire says in a statement. “The collaboration underscores our commitment to pioneer advancements that will shape the future of urban mobility.”

Wisk will also develop Houston-area relationships and chart out flight paths for self-flying, electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxis. The company's Generation 6 aircraft is autonomous, but a human supervisor remotely oversees every flight.

"Houston is at the forefront of aviation and aerospace innovation, so it’s only fitting that Houston Airports take the first steps to explore the next generation of air transportation,” says Jim Szczesniak, director of aviation for Houston Airports. “Our partnership with Wisk represents a bold step towards revolutionizing air mobility not just within our city, but across the entire Greater Houston region."

Earlier this year, Wisk partnered in a similar capacity with Sugar Land. The company and HAS will also work with the Federal Aviation Administration on this initiative.

“Our partnership with Houston Airports solidifies Wisk’s commitment to creating new and efficient ways to travel within the Greater Houston area and furthers our relationship with infrastructure and regulatory partners in the region," adds Brian Yutko, CEO at Wisk. “Connecting suburbs to Houston’s airports, business centers and prime tourist destinations through autonomous, sustainable air travel will create a new form of urban mobility and have tremendous economic and workforce impacts, supporting the growth of the Houston region.”

In addition to early infrastructure planning for maintenance and training facilities in Houston, the partnership means Houston Airports and Wisk will collaborate on integrating AAM into HAS's long-term plans.