Activate announced Cyrus Wadia as its new CEO and opened its 2024 applications. Photo courtesy of Activate

A national organization that helps accelerate scientists into entrepreneurs has named its new CEO in the same week that applications opened for its 2024 cohort.

This week, Activate announced Cyrus Wadia as CEO of the organization. Based California, Activate recently expanded to Houston. The two-year accelerator provides funding and support for its selected cohorts.

Wadia most recently served as director of worldwide product sustainability at Amazon. He also oversaw sustainable business and innovation at Nike and was appointed assistant director of clean energy and materials R&D at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Barack Obama.

"I’m thrilled to join this incredible team at such an exciting moment for the organization. Because of Activate, scientists are designing new products, accelerating the creation of new businesses, and becoming leaders who will transform our future," Wadia says in the news release. "I look forward to building on this momentum to expand the role science leadership plays in solving society’s most pressing issues.”

Wadia’s new role takes effect on October 16. Todd Johnson has served as interim CEO for the past year, and he will return to his role on Activate’s board of directors with the transition. The program's led locally by Jeremy Pitts, managing director for Activate Houston, who was named to the role last month.

The announcement came just a few days before Activate opened applications for its 2024 program — which will be the first year to have a Houston cohort. Applications are open until October 17 across Activate's five programs. The two-year, hardtech-focused program was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 and expanded to Boston and New York before launching its virtual program, Activate Anywhere.

“Activate’s recruitment process is crucial, as it centers around finding scientists directly interested in solving urgent problems,” Pitts says. “Activate fellows are turning their technical breakthroughs into businesses that can help industries like manufacturing, energy, chemicals, computing, and agriculture, to meet their decarbonization and resiliency goals.”

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A version of this article originally ran on EnergyCapitalHTX.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Jeremy Pitts of Activate Houston, Tim Boire of VenoStent, and Kevin Knobloch of Greentown Labs. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from medical device to climatetech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jeremy Pitts, managing director for Activate Houston

Jeremy Pitts has been named the inaugural Houston managing director for Activate. Photo via LinkedIn

Activate named Jeremy Pitts as the Houston managing director this month. The nonprofit, which announced its new Houston program earlier this year, was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products.

For Activate Houston, the challenge is to focus on finding and supporting innovators within the energy sector.

"There are so many reasons to be excited about the energy transition and overall innovation ecosystem in Houston — the region's leadership in energy and desire to maintain that leadership through the energy transition, the many corporations leading the charge to be part of that change who are speaking with their actions and not just their words, the incredible access to talent, the region's diversity, the list goes on and on," Pitts tells InnovationMap. Read more.

Tim Boire, CEO and co-founder of VenoStent

Tim Boire shares his company's roadmap on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Commercializing a health tech innovation is a long game — fraught with regulatory obstacles, cyclical rounds of funding, and continuous improvement — all fueled by the desire to enhance treatment and save lives.

That's Tim Boire's plan. And it's a thorough one at that. On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Boire — president and CEO of VenoStent, a medical device startup that’s designing a unique material for hemodialysis patients — shares his roadmap for his company.

"We believe we can be pioneers of a paradigm shift in vascular surgery — to not just treat problems after they've already occurred, but actually prevent them from occurring in the first place," he says in the episode. Read more.

Kevin Knobloch , CEO of Greentown Labs

Kevin Knobloch will lead Greentown Labs as CEO. Photo via LinkedIn

While not based in Houston, Kevin Knobloch, who served as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term, is definitely going to be someone to know in the innovation ecosystem. He will be CEO of Greentown Labs, effective September 5. In his role, Knobloch will oversee both Greentown locations in Houston and Somerville, Massachusetts, outside of Boston.

“I’m honored and thrilled to have the opportunity to once again pass the leadership baton,” Greentown Co-Founder Jason Hanna says, who has been serving as interim CEO. “Especially so given Kevin’s incredible record of climate leadership. I’m excited for the future of this organization and the impact he can make as Greentown enters the second decade of its climate mission.” Read more.

Jeremy Pitts has been named the inaugural Houston managing director for Activate. Photo via LinkedIn

Exclusive: New-to-Houston hardtech accelerator names local leader

innovator to know

An organization that promotes early-stage innovation within the hardtech space has named one of the founding entrepreneurs of Greentown Labs as its local Houston lead.

Activate named Jeremy Pitts as the Houston managing director this month. The nonprofit, which announced its new Houston program earlier this year, was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products.

For Activate Houston, the challenge is to focus on finding and supporting innovators within the energy sector.

"There are so many reasons to be excited about the energy transition and overall innovation ecosystem in Houston — the region's leadership in energy and desire to maintain that leadership through the energy transition, the many corporations leading the charge to be part of that change who are speaking with their actions and not just their words, the incredible access to talent, the region's diversity, the list goes on and on," Pitts tells InnovationMap.

"Houston is second to none when it comes to solving hard problems and is a region that knows how to build things and execute on projects at the scale needed to tackle the energy transition," he continues.

Pitts was one of the founders of Greentown Labs, and served in a leadership role for the organization between 2011 and 2015. He moved to Houston from Ohio to take the position, but has previously worked in the Bayou City's energy sector.

"Jeremy is the ideal inaugural managing director for Houston — having built a startup there, co-founding the Greentown Labs community, and demonstrating a strong track record of thoughtful mentorship," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "Jeremy will serve as the primary guide for our Houston fellows, helping them navigate the ups and downs facing first-time technical founders, and create and foster community among them. He will also plug Activate into the ecosystem to serve as a synergistic partner to all the other amazing initiatives across Texas."

The program finds local and regional early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — who are working on high-impact technology. Each cohort consists of 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Applications for the inaugural Houston cohort for 2024 will open September 15 and will close sometime in October.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

"As an impact-focused organization that focuses on turning talented scientists and technology leaders into product and business leaders, Activate enters the Houston ecosystem with no ulterior motives other than finding the right partners and being part of a community that enables scientists to solve hard problems and help make the world a better place," Pitts says. "I have a deep appreciation for all that Houston can offer having started and run a startup here previously and having experience in both traditional energy and climate tech."

Tomorrow, the organization is hosting a virtual event to introduce Pitts and the program to the Houston innovation ecosystem. Those interested in learning more can attend the event or find more information online.

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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.