Among this week's top stories is a feature on a Houston-based startup aiming to be the Uber or Lyft of personal trainers. Courtesy of Kanthaka

Editor's note: Houston saw big shake ups at some major innovation institutions this week, which made for some trending stories. And, per usual, readers enjoyed learning about local entrepreneurs fighting the good fight with their organizations.

Station Houston announces its transition into becoming a nonprofit

Station Houston's stakeholders voted in favor of the organization transitioning to a nonprofit. Station Houston/Facebook

Houston's startup scene just got a little more accessible. Station Houston's stakeholders voted to transition the organization to nonprofit status from the C-corp status it currently holds. The status change is effective January 1, 2019, for the acceleration hub, which is based in downtown Houston. The news was announced to its members in an email sent on December 13. Read the full story here.

Houston entrepreneur creates a network to link up with other blockchain professionals

The Houston Blockchain Alliance aims to connect and educate tech professionals in town. Getty Images

Houstonians traveling around the country might covet other cities for their mountain scapes, beaches, or more mild summers, but Mahesh Sashital envied the fact that other major cities had developed networks and organizations focused on connecting and educating tech professionals. Houston, it seems, was late to the party.

So, he decided to make his own blockchain-focused organization, and a few months ago, he launched the Houston Blockchain Alliance. Read the full story here.

3 Houston energy innovators to know this week

These energy startup leaders are the reason Houston will keep its "energy capital of the world" title. Courtesy images

Houston's known as the energy capital of the world, but it won't stay that way if the city as a whole doesn't work toward innovation. These three professionals started their own companies to improve efficiency and promote ingenuity in their fields. From drones and AI to quicker pipeline data access, this week's three innovators to know are the future of the energy industry. Read the full story here.

TMC Innovation Institute leader leaves the organization

Erik Halvorsen has reportedly left his position at the TMC Innovation Institute. Courtesy of TMC

Erik Halvorsen, director of the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute, has left his position, according to multiple reports.

TMC's medical device innovation team lead, Lance Black, was named as the interim replacement for Halvorsen, according to Xconomy. Black has been with TMC for almost two years. Read the full story here.

Get on-demand personal training from Houston-based app

Houston-based Kanthaka is the Uber or Lyft of personal training, and has recently expanded into the Austin market. Courtesy of Kanthaka

As a busy lawyer who traveled heavily for work, Sylvia Kampshoff found her workouts were often overlooked as she went from city to city, a casualty of long hours and a busy schedule. And, even though she did have a membership to a national gym with privileges at any of its locations, she hated the feeling of always being sold something and disliked that both the trainers and managers she worked with took very little interest in her personal needs and fitness goals.

She wanted something that allowed her to exercise with someone on her own schedule, and with people who valued customer service. That's how the idea for Kanthaka was born. Read the full story here.


The Houston Blockchain Alliance aims to connect and educate tech professionals in town. Getty Images

Houston entrepreneur creates a network to link up with other blockchain professionals

New kids on the block

Houstonians traveling around the country might covet other cities for their mountain scapes, beaches, or more mild summers, but Mahesh Sashital envied the fact that other major cities had developed networks and organizations focused on connecting and educating tech professionals. Houston, it seems, was late to the party.

So, he decided to make his own blockchain-focused organization, and a few months ago, he launched the Houston Blockchain Alliance.

Sashital, who is the co-founder of Smarterum, a blockchain news site, works from home and says — every once and a while — he needs some "adult talk time" with his fellow tech professionals.

"I thought that I'd start the Houston Blockchain Alliance so that someone like me, who's already in the industry, can find other people working in the industry," he says. "And for other people interested in blockchain can learn more and get up to speed with the technology."

The Houston Blockchain Alliance's goals are two part: to connect and to educate. The group plans to have an event in February, Sashital says, as well as a citywide blockchain conference in the third or fourth quarters of 2019. Sashital also wants to inform those interested on blockchain news and development by providing educational resources and opportunities.

"We plan on having workshops where people can talk about all sorts of aspects of blockchain — there's so much to talk about," he says. "We can have workshops on legal, accounting, technical, business strategy, and more."

Sashital, who's been a developer for the better part of his life, has a bigger, personal goal for the alliance too. He's worked and lived in Houston for 12 years and he says he's noticed that Houston hasn't yet claimed a reputation for being a tech city. It gets beaten out by cities like Austin, which just was announced to be the home of the new Apple campus. But a decade or so ago, Austin didn't have a tech reputation either. The city positioned itself to be that, and now it's Houston's turn, he says.

"We have a whole bunch of tech workers in Houston — but they are all fragmented across the city. We want to change that perception that Houston's not the place to go if you want to do tech work," Sashital says.

"Hopefully the Houston Blockchain Alliance is a small step in that direction."

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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.