PHIOGEN, based at Texas Medical Center Innovation, is headed to Austin next month. Photo courtesy of TMC

Houston biotech startup PHIOGEN is among 45 finalists that will present at this year’s SXSW Pitch showcase in Austin.

PHIOGEN is one of five food, nutrition, and health startups that will participate in the pitch competition, set for March 9 and 10. A panel of judges will listen to the pitches and then pick the winners. Since 2009, SXSW Pitch finalists have raised more than $23.2 billion in funding.

PHIOGEN has developed the world’s first biogenetics technology platform to harness the power of bacteriophages in the fight against serious drug-resistant infections. Bacteriophages — viruses that are found in bacterial cells — “are ubiquitous in the environment and are recognized as the most abundant biological agent on earth,” according to an article published in 2022 by StatPearls.

Founded in 2023, PHIOGEN is a spinoff of the Baylor College of Medicine’s TAILOR Labs. The startup, based at the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Hub, has attracted more than $5 million in funding.

“Nothing about our treatments is fabricated; it boils down to creating natural environments that mimic real-life infections, driving biological changes to create ‘super phages’ against the superbugs,” Amanda Burkardt, CEO of PHIOGEN, said in 2023. “As a result, we receive high-performing phage fighters that are trained and ready to deliver safe and effective treatments for clinical applications.”

Professional services firm KPMG is the main sponsor of SXSW Pitch.

Six of this year’s SXSW Pitch judges are from Houston:

  • Heath Butler of Mercury Fund
  • Jesse Martinez of LSA Global
  • Trevor Purvis of the Houston Astros
  • Anu Puvvada of KPMG
  • Irene Tang of StartOut
  • Nate Thompson of HTX Sports Tech

“2024 is an exciting year for startups, and we are looking forward to showcasing these inspiring companies that are making waves in their respective industries and the world as a whole, as well as help connect them with the resources needed to continue advancing,” says Chris Valentine, producer of SXSW Pitch.

Three Houston innovators discussed the strides the city is making in terms of equitable funding opportunities. Photos courtesy

SXSW panel: What Houston needs to do to develop as an equitable tech ecosystem

houston house

Houston has consistently been recognized as one of the most diverse cities in the country — but is that translating into equitable funding opportunities for diverse founders? A panel at SXSW this year discussed whether or not Houston's playing field is level for people of color within the innovation ecosystem.

"People do business with who they know — and who they like," says Felix Chevalier, co-founder of Urban Capital Network, when the panel was asked where the disconnect is with funding diverse founders. "I think it boils down to a lack of exposure and a lack of relationships."

Chevalier was joined by Jesse Martinez of Resolved Ventures and VamosVentures and Denise Hamilton of WatchHerWork, who moderated the discussion, which was hosted in the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston House on Sunday, March 13, at SXSW in Austin.

"We have to look at the pipeline — what the existing ecosystem looks like," says Martinez, who leads the LatinX Alliance, an organization that's relocating its operations to Houston. "We have new funds, new diverse GPs, and we have more investors — and we're building talent. ... We are making great strides, but we still need more of us to be funding our diverse founders."

The key to the equation, the panelists agreed, is education and programming — both for potential investors, like UCN does with its hands-on support for its diverse investor base, and for founders of color who might be more hesitant to plunge by starting a company.

"The way you start to dissolve that fear for folks, for example, who may be in a corporate space but may want to spread their entrepreneur wings, is to just get involved with the ecosystem," Chevalier says. "What ends up happening is you bump into someone you know or someone who is from the same talent you are originally — all you have to do is immerse yourself in the environment."

"The opportunities are out there, but it is incumbent upon in those who want it to put themselves in a position to meet people who are in the environments that are going to help facilitate whatever your objectives are," he continues.

Hamilton explained her experience raising money as a Black woman — investors didn't want to bet on her. It's a chicken and an egg situation, she says, and support for diverse founders in terms of programming and investors focused specifically on underserved communities are going to help break the cycle. It's not about charity, but equitable opportunities.

"I don't want any charity – I don't want an overabundance of kindness. Scaffold me like you scaffolded Mark Zuckerberg," Hamilton says, giving Facebook as an example of a company that was supported in a way she never had. "If you are going to be in a nascent ecosystem, you need to have structures that explain why your pitch deck has to be efficient, why you need a team. We've got to not focus just on the money piece, but on this whole psychosocial aspect."

With Hamilton's call to Houston's development as an equitable tech ecosystem, the conversation turned to discuss whether or not Houston is ready to provide this support to startups and rise to being the global innovation hub the city wants to be.

"We've got to find our tribe. We have all the pieces," Martinez says. "It's going to take time, and we have to be very intentional. ... It's really about thinking of Houston as a startup itself. How do we act as a team, and bring in partners and investors to make it a thriving ecosystem over time."

It takes commitment, Hamilton says, and that's happening in the Bayou City.

"Everything is not figured out right now — but there's a commitment to figuring it out," she says. "It's not going to be Silicon Valley overnight — it will never be Silicon Valley. Because this is Houston."

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

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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.

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

Houston native brings LatinX startup support to the Ion with HQ move

Q&A

Jesse Martinez was working in Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley. He took his years of experience within that tech ecosystem and launched the LatinX Startup Alliance to support his fellow Hispanic entrepreneurs — and now he's bringing that support to his hometown.

The LatinX Startup Alliance will move its headquarters into The Ion in 2022, Martinez tells InnovationMap. He's excited to finally make his professional return to Houston and to help support the diverse ecosystem — one that has been created with diversity at the forefront, unlike Silicon Valley and other coastal tech hubs.

"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?"

Martinez joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about the new HQ announcement and what he's excited about in terms of DEI in Houston's tech scene.

InnovationMap: Tell me a little bit about your own tech and entrepreneurship journey.

Jesse Martinez: In 1996, one weekend I was at Barnes and Noble reading the newspaper, and, for whatever reason, I went through the classified ads and this one ad caught my eye. It said, "internet sales for internet company." So I faxed in my resume and I got a call back, did my phone screens, and they flew me out to San Jose. I interviewed with the founders in Sunnyville where the startup was based. The name of the startup was Internet Systems Inc., funded by Sequoia Capital and I ended up joining as employee number 27.

I was new to this whole world. We were one of two pioneers in the web hosting services space — pre-Rackspace, pre-AWS, et cetera. In less than a year, we went from startup to public company trading at $35 a share via two acquisitions. So that was my whole intro into the world of tech startups, Silicon Valley, and stock options.

Because of that work, I caught the startup bug and did my first startup with my brother in 2000. We had two acquisition offers. We turned one down, and we were entertaining the second one, which was between $8 and $10 million. And then the market crashed in March of 2000. Those offers went away, and we tried to raise more money, but just couldn't do it. And then we ended up shutting down December of 2000.

IM: How did you come to start the LatinX Alliance?

JM: In 2010, I was looking to do my second startup. And it was early days of community-based organizations providing services for their founders — Black founders, Jewish founders, and others. And I did a set of Google searches to try to find something for myself. I'm like, "I'm Latino, I'm a tech and founder what's available for us?" And there was nothing. That left me scratching my head. Like how can this be? This is the global mecca of tech. That became the beginning of Latino Startup Alliance. We launched in 2011 in the Mission District of San Francisco with six people with their mission to empower Latino tech founders. Fast forward to today, we're over a thousand members globally. Our mission is still the same. And last year, we changed our name from Latino to LatinX to be more supportive and inclusive.

IM: You’re from Houston originally, but when did you have the idea of bringing the alliance to Texas?

JM: I was super excited to meet Bob Harvey (from the Greater Houston Partnership) and team, when they did a delegation to Silicon Valley. I met them at the Salesforce Tower, and we started talking about tech and Aggies and all the above. And they're like, "by the way, do you know that we're know committing to tech? We're finally making that commitment from the city on down, you should be there." And I'm like, "well, I've been waiting for this all my life." Houston was so engaged in oil, gas and energy. And so it was finally refreshing to hear that Houston had made that commitment. It felt right and it made sense to move our headquarters to Houston, and we'll officially launch in 2022.

IM: The new headquarters of the LatinX Startup Alliance is in The Ion. How will you work with them collaboratively and what can people expect from your organization?

JM: One of the things that we did early on as an organization is do a series of events — weekly events as well as a yearly summits. We were actually going to host our first summit in October of this year, because of the pandemic and the uncertainty, we decided to postpone it just because we wanted to be respectful for everyone's health and safety. We pushed it to next year, targeting the same month — October of 2022. And that'll be two days of programming focused on tech and also tech careers. So, there'll be a Friday and a Saturday. One of the things we want to ensure is that by hosting something on Saturday on tech careers, is that more people will be able to attend. And then Friday we'll focus on tech, founders, and startups.

Through our monthly events, we'll have office hours, we'll have meetups, and what we call LSA founder dinners. We just hosted one last week in Oakland, and we used to do these all the time. We're going back to that now that we can, and especially as we launch in Houston is ensuring that we have that consistency as we start building that community. It's like starting over, which is great. The biggest part is being able to support and champion the LatinX tech community here in Houston and also the state of Texas.

IM: How do you envision growing the LatinX Startup Alliance internationally? 

JM: We've always been global from day one. We've had founders come from other cities and countries to Silicon Valley because it was such a hub for many, many years. It'll be interesting to see what happens moving forward. A lot of people have moved away to their hometowns or new cities. So now we have a more distributed network of founders and startups and also investors. So when you talk about access and access to opportunities, it's certainly a big win for those founders and startups across the west.

IM: What should people know about LSA? 

JM: We operate under three pillars, which are awareness, access, and acceleration. Through the awareness piece, it's creating awareness around LatinX tech, startups and founders, both of those that are in the ecosystem and those that want to learn more. Access is being able to include people in tech programming, again for founders or for the public to participate in whatever it is we post, you know, from a founder perspective, it could be an invitation to attend Techcrunch or SaaStr Annual— either virtually or in person in San Francisco. We've had a partnership with both of them. So, we have diversity scholarships for our members.

IM: How have you seen things change in terms of connecting LatinX founders with funding?

JM: There is more access, and we help facilitate some of the awareness. You might not be aware of all the investors angel investors. And so that's where we try to be the bridge and be able to make those warm introductions between investors and also the startup founders. There are a lot more diverse funds. There's a lot more diverse general partners, which is awesome. And I think there's access to more. Does that mean that everyone's getting funded? No. It's not easier to get money, but there's just more money to go around. But you still have to go through the same steps and follow the process.

IM: Ahead of the launch of the LatinX Startup Alliance in Houston, who are you looking to connect with?

JM: Everyone, because you never know who that one person's going to be —corporates, companies, startups, founders, investors, other nonprofits. One of things that I've been doing as I've been going back to Houston is just meeting people from the ecosystem.One of the things that we're working on right now is setting up a group of key stakeholders for LatinX Houston Alliance. Who are those key players that we can bring together on a monthly basis? I'm thinking like a town hall of 40 or so people talk about what we need to do to better support and champion the ecosystem.

------

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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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.