This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Aaron Knape of sEATz, Ivery Boston III of Houston Exponential, and Jesse Martinez of the LatinX Startup Alliance. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from sportstech to startup-focused nonprofit work — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz

Aaron Knape joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how he's taking the sEATz platform into a new vertical. Photo courtesy of sEATz

Although sEATz was founded in 2018, Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder, says it's only now that the company is really coming into its own as a startup ready to scale in a big way.

"I tell the team that we're kind of coming out of stealth mode — I know we're not in a true stealth mode, but we haven't spent a lot of money on sales and marketing," Knape says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Now it's time to start putting that emphasis on who we are, that we're here, and we're ready to take over."

Knape joins the show to discuss sEATz's expansion into health care and what's next for the growing company. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Ivery Boston III, director of inclusive innovation at Houston Exponential

Ivery Boston III joins HX to lead inclusive efforts. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston Exponential made a new hire to reflect on the city's diversity. Ivery Boston III is one week into his role as HX's director of inclusive innovation. He will be tasked with leading prototyping and testing new inclusive ideas and ways of operating, according to a news release from HX. He will also be responsible for creating opportunities for underrepresented founders to succeed in Houston.

Boston joins HX from Miami, where he led research, strategy, recruitment of high-growth startups, and impact reporting for the Miami Downtown Development Authority.

"I am excited to serve the Houston community as the director of inclusive innovation at Houston Exponential," says Boston in the release. "I'm a massive fan of HX's work advocating for, connecting, and raising the profile of the Houston innovation ecosystem while linking local founders to funding. It is a privilege to join this exemplary team and provide additional attention to underrepresented and under-encouraged founders within the city." Click here to read more.

Jesse Martinez, founder of the LatinX Startup Alliance

Jesse Martinez, founder of the LatinX Startup Alliance, joins InnovationMap for a Q&A on why he's relocating his nonprofit to Houston. Photo courtesy of LSA

Wheen Jesse Martinez was looking for startup support as a Latino founder, he couldn't find it. So, he took the initiative to make it himself and launched the LatinX Startup Alliance. The Houston native announced his plans to relocate his Silicon Valley nonprofit to The Ion next year.

He tells InnovationMap why he thinks Houston is the right market for LSA.

"We're on the ground floor. We're helping to build that foundation. It's not an afterthought. It's not something that now we're trying to go back and think of diversity," Martinez tells InnovationMap. "I think that's the beautiful thing about Houston and everyone that I've met is that it's been so diverse and inclusive. That spirit is already there. So, how do we just maximize that?" Click here to read the full Q&A.

Ivery Boston III joins HX to lead inclusive efforts. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston Exponential hires new exec to promote inclusive innovation

new to hou

Houston's considered one of the most diverse cities in the country, and Houston Exponential is focused on building an innovation ecosystem that's reflective of that.

The nonprofit organization announced a new hire that will lead this initiative. Ivery Boston III started this week as HX's director of inclusive innovation. He will be tasked with leading prototyping and testing new inclusive ideas and ways of operating, according to a news release from HX. He will also be responsible for creating opportunities for underrepresented founders to succeed in Houston.

"Other cities, in their dogged pursuit of being the next 'Silicon Valley,' followed the coastal playbook and weren't deliberate to support underserved entrepreneurs," says Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential, in the release. "There is still much work to be done to address subtle and persistent forms of bias in the ways underrepresented founders access the resources, capital, and talent needed to thrive here in Houston. This move, for Houston Exponential and for the City of Houston, is part of an intentional strategy to foster a more inclusive, accessible ecosystem."

Boston joins HX from Miami, where he led research, strategy, recruitment of high-growth startups, and impact reporting for the Miami Downtown Development Authority.

"I am excited to serve the Houston community as the director of inclusive innovation at Houston Exponential," says Boston in the release. "I'm a massive fan of HX's work advocating for, connecting, and raising the profile of the Houston innovation ecosystem while linking local founders to funding. It is a privilege to join this exemplary team and provide additional attention to underrepresented and under-encouraged founders within the city."

Boston has also worked with Indeed.com, Zipcar, Sodexo, and other companies within market reporting. He attended Temple University.

"I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and ensuring that all Houstonians can see a viable path to entrepreneurship," he continues. "It's time to leverage Houston's diversity to bring in additional funding sources, create jobs, and use the profound local awareness of the world to launch businesses, services, and products that serve the global market."

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Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.