Support Houston startups by shopping local this holiday season. Photos courtesy

'Tis the season for giving — and what if you could check off your holiday to-do list and simultaneously support some local startups? This year's Houston startup gift guide includes comfortable-yet-stylish heels, culinary treats, and more.

Need some more ideas? Browse last year's roundup of Houston startup-created gift ideas and check out the 2020 and 2019 startup gift guides as well for even more options.

For the family fashionista: All-day comfort shoes

Steffie Tomson founded a company to prioritize comfort — without sacrificing style — for women on the go. Photo via getawaysticks.com

Before starting her business, Houstonian Steffie Tomson ordered $2,000 worth of shoes and sliced them all in half with a bandsaw just to see what was inside. Tomson, a neuroscientist by trade and the founder and CEO of footwear startup Getaway Sticks, had an idea for a different kind of shoe — one that was redesigned to prioritize women’s comfort.

Earlier this year, Tomson shared the Getaway Sticks origin story with InnovationMap. The heels are available online for around $200 per pair.

For the resident chef: Fresh fish delivered

Sugar Land-based Fish Fixe floated their seafood delivery service on Shark Tank last year. Photo via Shark Tank

Houstonians Melissa Harrington and Emily Castro saw how beneficial incorporating fish into your diet can be — so they decided to launch an easier way to do it. They launched Fish Fixe in 2017 to deliver seafood with easy-to-access instructions on storage and thawing — plus cooking recipes that take around 20 minutes.

The duo appeared on the 13th season of Shark Tank last year. In 2020, as InnovationMap reported, the company saw a 400-percent increase in sales. They pitched asking for $200,000 in investment. Lori Greiner, the "queen of QVC," took the bait — and 25 percent equity.

Shoppers can stock up on various boxes from $109 to $219, or opt for a gift card for their loved one.

For the health nut: Sustainably-sourced nutrients

A Houston-based fund has deployed capital into a local nutritional supplement business. Photo via Instagram

Houston--based iwi creates nutritional supplements for the brain and the heart — and they are doing it in a sustainable setting: algae farms. These football field-sized farms operate on desert land using just salt water and sand and produce algae sustainably — all while absorbing CO2. Miguel Calatayud, CEO of the company, tells InnovationMap that the farms even area able to reuse 98 percent of the water involved in the process. Earlier this year, iwi received an investment from a local group in an $8 million deal.

The company has almost a dozen options online for around $30 per canister of supplements.

For your aging loved ones: Afterlife planning and memory keeping

The Postage — a Houston-based company that's streamlining afterlife planning — has rolled out a new app. Photo courtesy of The Postage

There's a lot that goes into legacy and afterlife planning, and a Houston startup has emerged to make the process a whole lot easier. The Postage helps its users generate their wills and organize information to leave behind, the company's founder, Emily Cisek, shares with InnovationMap. The platform also every user to leave messages, photos, and memories in a digital vault that will stand the test of time.

Giving the gift of legacy planning can be an option for anyone in your family — from the grandparents to the newlyweds.

For someone seeking luscious locks: Hair growth tracking kit

This startup is making sure every follicle of hair on your head is counted. Photo via myhaircounts.com

While it might seem odd to gift someone a hair loss tracking kit, this product from a Houston company has helped many men and women suffering from hair density challenges. MyHairCounts created a hair density imaging kit and app based on proprietary and patent-pending software. The kit includes a variety of items such as scalp imaging guides, a comb, and gel to help individuals photograph their hair follicles at specified angles. Users then upload these photographs into the app for analyses which are delivered within 48 hours. These analyses inform the user whether or not their hair regrowth treatment is effective.

The kit itself is just $40 and available online. Users can work with the company on a longer hair growth plan, too.

Bonus: What to bring to the table

Support Houston startups by bringing these goodies to your next festive shindig. Photos courtesy

Sometimes your presence is the present, and if you're headed to some holiday dinner parties, here are some innovative ideas for the potluck.

  • Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., a vertical indoor farming company producing leafy greens and herbs and delivering them locally to grocery stores in Texas and nearby states. Pick up Dream Harvest products at a Whole Foods location, and read more about the company.
  • This year has been a big one for the growing Bread Man Baking Co., as the company expanded from its 5,000-square-foot kitchen and moved its operations into a new 40,000-square-foot facility on the northeast side of Houston. Pick up some of the company's products at Whole Foods or HEB. Read more about the company.
  • A new, “hyperpure” oxygen-enriched water brand has rolled out in Houston in single-serve and subscription options. Dubbed HOW — Hyperpure Oxygenated Water — the award-winning super-filtered water (via a 14-level filtration process that removes impurities down to the nano-level .0001 microns) is now available at 35 specialty retailers around town. Read more about the company.

HOW water comes to you via subscription. Photo by Alex Montoya

Houston restaurant veteran pops open award-winning and sustainable new bottled water

how nice

Houstonians who are picky about their bottled water but also environmentally minded now have a refreshing local option — one that even comes to them.

A new, “hyperpure” oxygen-enriched water brand has rolled out in Houston in single-serve and subscription options. Dubbed HOW — Hyperpure Oxygenated Water — the award-winning super-filtered water (via a 14-level filtration process that removes impurities down to the nano-level .0001 microns) is now available at 35 specialty retailers around town.

HOW secured gold medal awards in the coveted category of Best Tasting Purified Drinking Water in 2019 and 2021 at the annual Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. That contest is widely known in the industry as The Oscars of water tasting competitions.

The new water comes courtesy of local serial entrepreneur Bob Peebler, whose 40-plus year career in business has spawned multiple ventures, including the instantly recognizable health-conscious Ruggles Green restaurants.

Fresh air

Peebler’s water journey started six years ago when he met an inventor in Santa Barbara who was building a perfect water system that not only produced hyperpure water, but also an experimental system that raised the oxygen levels of the water up to five times beyond the oxygen content in tap and bottled water.

“This difference in the inventor’s system was how he used a patented system that injects 98 percent oxygen into a swirling vortex that creates nano bubbles that find their way to embed in the water,” Peebler tells CultureMap. “The bubbles are so small that when the body absorbs the water, it ends up raising the oxygen levels of the body’s tissues. After seeing lab measurements, I was convinced that this was different. The other intrigue is that in-solution oxygen creates a silky texture which makes the water a pleasure to drink.”

After coaxing the inventor to build a system at his home in Ojai, California, Peebler shared the water with his friends, who couldn’t get enough of it. The serial entrepreneur was inspired.

Precious metal

Hardly surprising that the Houstonian responsible for Ruggles Green and its healthy and planet-first approach (reusable containers, biodegradable utensils) would create an eco-friendly new product. Aside from the health benefits offered with HOW, Peebler wanted reusable and recyclable delivery systems. And that meant no plastic bottles, but rather, aluminum.

“No one is certain how microplastics affect our health, but I’m guessing it’s not a good thing, and I know it doesn’t help the taste,” says Peebler. “More importantly, there are 1 million plastic bottles purchased every minute, and roughly 70 percent of that mostly non-recyclable plastic waste ends up in our oceans, lakes, bayous and landfills. In contrast, the aluminum bottles that HOW uses are infinitely recyclable.”

A winning formula

Learning first-hand how wasteful the restaurant industry is, Peebler ensured his Ruggles Green operations recycled grease, composted waste, used diode lighting, and employed other environmentally friendly approaches. With that in mind, he’s ensured that his water tastes good, is good for the planet, and the bottles are reusable or easily recycled.

Currently available for home delivery (subscribe here), HOW can also be found at spots such as Midtown Market, Phoenicia Specialty Foods, Rice Epicurean Market, O Athletik, Total Nutrition, and all four Local Foods locations. Bottled in a specialty plant in Mineral Wells, Texas, HOW is slated to be released to Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio.

It’s all part of Peebler’s ambition to provide a wealth of water that’s good for people and planet.

“If we deliver a superior tasting product that just happens to be better for both your health and our planet,” Peebler adds, “we believe that’s a winning combination that will resonate with consumers.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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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.