If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it's how important the resilience of our digital infrastructure is, our reliance on data, and the power technology has to help us during challenging times. Getty Images

As the United States looks to reopen from an unprecedented shutdown caused by a global pandemic, conversations amongst government and policy bodies are slowly switching to how they will support the economy in the long term. There is a need to improve infrastructure, strengthen the supply chain, increase economic resiliency, etc.

Indeed, the speed of the economic shock caused by COVID-19 highlighted the fragility of many key systems and processes, impacting the ability of the federal and state governments to distribute economic relief funds, manage healthcare capacity, and support small businesses.

There is no better illustration of this fragility in the system than the sudden spike in demand for COBOL programmers. COBOL is a decades-old programming language that was used to write mainframe applications. Apparently over half of the states in the U.S., including California and New York, rely on applications written in a language first introduced in 1959 for their critical state systems.

There is clearly a need to modernize the public services technology infrastructure, not only in expectation of future pandemic-driven disruptions but to increase efficiency and reduce costs nationally. The private sector can and should play an important role in bringing modern technology into the critical parts of the economy.

But that requires a closer collaboration between state governments and technology firms to identify the best and most efficient way forward. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the Internet of Things can dramatically reshape and improve public sector technology infrastructure while providing broader benefits to the state economies.

The critical first step in building this public-private partnership is to educate and engage state officials and legislators on specific technologies that can be put to use.

On April 29, I attended a virtual meeting organized by Texas Blockchain Committee (TBC) and hosted by the office of State Representative Tan Parker. In attendance, there were individuals and organizations based in Texas that are involved in developing practical applications of blockchain technology. What was also encouraging was that there were quite a few members of the State Legislature in attendance.

Here are a few key points that are worth highlighting from the meeting:

  • There is growing recognition and acceptance that blockchain is a technology that has wide applications outside of the cryptocurrency world. In fact, during the meeting, no one mentioned Bitcoin or crypto-trading.
  • Texas is aiming to explore ways to be at the forefront of blockchain technology adoption and be the leader among the states in promoting Blockchain innovation. Back in 2018 at the height of ICO and cryptocurrency mania, The Brooking Institution labeled Texas as reactionary when it comes to blockchain. Since then the state attitude has changed, in many ways thanks to Representative Parker and his push to initiate a proper study of blockchain's applicability at the state level.
  • There are many Texas-based companies with deep technical expertise and know-how in the blockchain. Some even moved their operations from other parts of the country to Texas in order to scale their businesses.
  • Whether it is related to the distribution of relief funds for businesses or individuals impacted by COVID -19, improvements in the way the healthcare industry handles patient data or other areas that require secure and transparent record management, blockchain is gaining attention as a technology to modernize critical digital infrastructure.
  • Particular attention was given to the efforts in other countries to bring blockchain technology into mainstream adoption. For example, China launched its nationwide Blockchain Services Network (BSN) in April of this year and is looking to bring digital central bank currency online early next year. The Chinese BSN is a result of joint efforts by the government, regulators, and private sector companies – a model that could work very well in the U.S. and in Texas.
  • It is worth noting that at the federal level there are currently over 30 blockchain-related bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. While a majority of these bills are focusing on the regulation of cryptocurrencies, there are a few that aim to promote the study of blockchain usage more broadly.

As a Texas-based fintech company that has been using Blockchain for the past three years, we are very encouraged by the broad interest in this technology. The Texas Blockchain Committee, led by Lee Bratcher and Karen Kilroy, has managed to pull together many individuals and companies to participate in this exciting effort.

If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it's how important the resilience of our digital infrastructure is, our reliance on data, and the power technology has to help us during challenging times. However, in order for us to leverage technology during harder times, we need to invest in properly applying it during stable times.

I believe this is a step in the right direction for Texas, and I hope we are able to expand the adoption of this technology, where relevant, at a national level. A coordinated national effort to study how technology, blockchain or otherwise, can help us be better prepared for our country's future.

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Rashad Kurbanov is the CEO and co-founder of Houston-based iownit capital and markets, a digital investment platform for private securities.

The music industry has adapted to the digital age — so should financial securities. Getty Images

The financial industry needs to digitize not tokenize, says this Houston expert

Guest column

One of my favorite movies growing up was Empire Records. It was the mid-1990s, and the closest we got to Instagram feeds was who had the best mixtapes. If you're not familiar with Empire Records (or what a mixtape is), I recommend watching the movie, but you don't have to worry too much about mixtapes any more.

Since Empire Records was released in 1995, the way we purchase and consume music has fundamentally changed. The physical music store was displaced by iTunes, and then the music industry evolved even further into a streaming economy. It took 24 years, but music evolved and it now operates in a fundamentally different way. Digitization of music was initially viewed as an existential threat to the industry, but in the end, music was digitized globally and the music industry very much survived.

The music industry has evolved and adapted to the digital age. The same happened across countless other industries, including financial services. Today we can invest in publicly traded stocks through a mobile app for free. However, a critical segment of capital markets has not evolved yet. The private securities space.

Transactions in private securities are still done on paper (no, DocuSign does not count as securities digitization.) Administrative costs are kept high due to the amount of paper that is processed and pushed through this system. As long as the foundation of private securities is paper, there is no amount of administrative technology out there to create an efficient market.

Public markets took the plunge into digital long before music did, and digitization of public markets enabled exponential growth globally. Trading volume, access to capital, and liquidity have all increased, and a large part of that can be attributed to the efficient and transparent nature of most public exchanges.

Efficient markets rely on price transparency and information equality. Currently, the private securities markets do not offer either of these characteristics. This is nothing new to people in the alternatives space, but how to reach these lofty goals, to create liquidity and reduce costs, is what I am excited about.

The reduction of cost does not relate only to commissions. There are administrative costs associated with private securities. Information distribution is slow and unilateral, forcing investors to depend on antiquated systems in order to track their investments. Nearly all of these costs are absorbed by the investor, and most efforts to date have not helped address the core issue, analog private security transactions.

Digitization of private securities is fundamentally different than tokenization. Tokenized securities are considered bearer securities. A digitized security, on the other hand, maintains its original status as a registered security, as long as its digitization is implemented in a manner that fits current regulatory requirements. Until recently, that had not been possible in a scalable way. Blockchain changed all of that.

Initial attempts at utilizing blockchain for private markets applied tokenization. Essentially, this configuration took securities that had clearly defined ownership records, anonymized them and put them on a public blockchain such as Ethereum. While there are some benefits to this approach, it also opened doors to significant fraud and securities regulation violations. Tokenization may provide liquidity, but the long-term risk far outweighs the value of liquidity for any prudent investor.

Blockchain does provide a framework that supports compliant digitization of private investments, it's simply not tokenization. The solution lies in using private permissioned blockchains that allow an appropriate degree of technical security while also ensuring transparency and accountability.

Blockchain enables us to maintain a statement of record that is both compliant, and scalable. Across the financial services industry, and across most other industries, blockchain is being deployed to help solve problems that were previously unmanageable. The blockchain is even helping farmers track their crops through IBM's blockchain. iownit has integrated blockchain at the core of our technology, proving that compliant digitization of private securities is possible and scalable.

The United States has a free market economy, so in the end, winners are determined by the market. It is our belief that the digitization of private securities is the responsible way to help this industry evolve. If you're still skeptical, just look at how the public securities markets have evolved since the '70s when electronic stock trading was enabled and the first digital public security trade was placed. Now try and imagine how private security markets will look in four years.

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Yosef Levenstein is the head of marketing at iownit, a Houston-based financial technology firm that is democratizing how investors and private companies transact.

Houston-based iownit.us got the green light from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. Getty Images

Houston blockchain-enabled investment platform gets regulatory approval

green light

For Rashad Kurbanov, this day has been a long time coming. The founder of iownit.us has been building his digital investment platform for two years, and now the company has been approved for membership by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

As a FIRA member, IOI Capital and Markets LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of iownit.us, the company can be placement agent for digital private securities that are issued on the iownit.us platform.

The iownit.us' blockchain-backed technology allows for a more simplified and streamlined process for securities investment, making it easier on both the investors and the companies seeking investment.

"We believe our platform will reduce friction in the market and reduce costs for all market participants, while importantly providing appropriate investor protections," Kurbanov says in the release.

Kurbanov indicates in the release that the length of the approval process wasn't that surprising.

"As any new technology being introduced in financial markets, blockchain had to be thoroughly evaluated by the regulators to ensure its application in compliance with regulations that made the U.S. capital markets envy of the world," he says. "We spent a significant amount of time with FINRA and SEC Staff on productive discussions working through the use of distributed ledger technology and how it can be implemented to provide convenient yet secure platform."

Iownit.us represents a more modern approach to traditional investing processes in an increasingly digitized world.

"We are not here to 'revolutionize' investing, but we do intend to make it vastly more modern and less complicated for both issuers and investors to engage and transact," he says in the release.

In June, the company closed a $4.5 million Seed round of investment. Kurbanov said that those funds would be use to wrap up this approval process. Now that it's all squared away, the remaining funds will go toward business development and marketing initiatives and technological advancements.

Houston-based iownit.us secured $4.5 million to grow its platform. Getty Images

Houston investment platform completes a $4.5 million Series A round

Money moves

A Houston-based digital investor infrastructure platform closed an investment round of its own. Iownit Capital and Markets Inc. announced that it has closed a $4.5 million Seed round of funding.

The round was lead by a group of private investors who were not identified in the June 26 release. While iownit.us CEO Rashad Kurbanov has been working on the platform for two years, he still awaits regulatory approval.

"This funding shows the demand for a platform like this in the marketplace, and will be crucial in making sure our platform meets regulatory requirements," Kurbanov says in the release. "We're doing everything we can to get this correct from the very start — unlike many firms who say, 'better to ask for forgiveness than permission,' we ask permission first because we don't want to ever be in a position where we're asking for forgiveness."

The primary function of the funds will go to wrapping up this approval process to insure the company has all of its required licenses. After that's all squared away, the remaining funds will go toward business development and marketing initiatives and technological advancements.

Iownit.us uses private blockchain and ledger technology to transact traditional investment deals securely on its digital platform.

"We realized there's a big section of the overall capital market that has not necessarily been touched by technology, and that's the space of private securities," Kurbanov tells InnovationMap in a previous interview.

Kurbanov says the convoluted process of private securities investment has meant that startup companies are much more likely to focus on receiving funding venture firms, because they want to have a one-stop-shopping experience.

When entrepreneurs add in multiple investors, they end up juggling too much of the logistics side of things, rather than running their company. Iownit's platform, enabled by the JOBS Act, plans to simplify this process, which then allows for a diversity of investments in the ecosystem that's in the past been dominated by huge VCs.

"What we do, and where technology helps us, is we can take the entire process of receiving interest from investors, signing the transactions, issuing the subscription agreements, and processing the payments and put that all online," says Kurbanov.

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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.