This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Joanna Nathan of Prana Thoracic, Alfredo Arvide of Cloche, and Susan Davenport of the Greater Houston Partnership. Photos courtesy

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

Joanna Nathan, CEO, and co-founder of Prana Thoracic

Prana Thoracic, an innovative startup in the lung cancer diagnostics space, has raised its series A round of investment. Photo via LinkedIn

Joanna Nathan has been busy. It's been just under six months since the launch of her company, Prana Thoracic, a Houston health tech startup tackling lung cancer diagnostics, and the company has already secured its next round of investment funding. A medical device company developing a tool for early interception of lung cancer, the company announced last week that it closed a $3 million series A financing round.

In August, the company received a $3 million award from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas. All of Prana Thoracic's funding is being used to develop the unique diagnostic product and the company's path to first-in-human clinical studies.

“Our technology provides a definitive answer to patients with lung nodules and allows physicians to intervene earlier in the lung cancer patient’s journey,” says Joanna Nathan, CEO, and co-founder of Prana, in a news release. “Our team is grateful to have the support of our investors and excited to leverage this financing to accelerate our technology to the bedside.” Read more.

Alfredo Arvide, co-founder and managing director of Cloche

This new restaurant technology allows for eateries to upgrade to mobile ordering for no cost. Photo courtesy of Cloche

A new mobile software platform has launched in Houston and is currently looking for restaurants interested in utilizing their technology to upgrade their eatery with mobile ordering at no cost to the restaurant.

Alfredo Arvide, co-founder and managing director of Cloche, tells InnovationMap that the idea for the platform came after the pandemic forced restaurateurs to quickly pivot to touch-free menus. Now that the consumer has adapted to scanning QR codes to view menus, the next step is to optimize ordering — something that will also help with the labor shortages that restaurants are now facing.

"Now is the time transform this industry by creating a better meal experience for the consumers, an easier job for the restaurant staff and a more efficient, more profitable business for restaurant owners," Arvide says. Read more.Read more.

Susan Davenport, senior vice president and chief economic development officer for the Greater Houston Partnership

The Greater Houston Partnership's Susan Davenport shares details on Houston House at SXSW, HETI House at CERAWeek, and taking the city on tour to spread awareness of the ecosystem. Photo via houston.org

Every year, one of the biggest tech conferences in the world convenes right down the road from Houston in downtown Austin. That's a huge opportunity for the Greater Houston Partnership to showcase and congregate Housto's tech innovators.

Susan Davenport, senior vice president and chief economic development officer for the Greater Houston Partnership, shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast how the GHP has made an effort to increase Houston's presence at SXSW over the past few years. This year, the third year for Houston House, the GHP and the Houston Energy Transition Initiative are convening over 20 Houston innovators for two days of programming.

"We want to further the development of our ecosystem," Davenport says on the podcast. "Houston is so uniquely place for this — we have such well-developed industry sectors and a customer base. ... All entrepreneurs want to showcase their products and talk about what their doing. We'll have people there to answer questions and, most importantly, invite them to Houston." Read more and listen to the episode.

Prana Thoracic, an innovative startup in the lung cancer diagnostics space, has raised its series A round of investment. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston health tech company closes $3M series A

money moves

It's been just under six months since the launch of Prana Thoracic, a Houston health tech startup tackling lung cancer diagnostics, and the company has already secured its next round of investment funding.

Prana Thoracic, a medical device company developing a tool for early interception of lung cancer, announced last week that it closed a $3 million series A financing round led by Florida-based New World Angels with participation from Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JJDC, Inc., Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the University City Science Center’s Phase 1 Ventures.

In August, the company received a $3 million award from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas. All of Prana Thoracic's funding is being used to develop the unique diagnostic product and the company's path to first-in-human clinical studies.

“Our technology provides a definitive answer to patients with lung nodules and allows physicians to intervene earlier in the lung cancer patient’s journey,” says Joanna Nathan, CEO, and co-founder of Prana, in a news release. “Our team is grateful to have the support of our investors and excited to leverage this financing to accelerate our technology to the bedside.”

The company's technology is a minimally invasive, tissue-sparing nodulectomy tool that can evaluate suspicious pulmonary nodules early on in hopes of being able to catch and treat patients with lung cancer. The tool's development originated on the grounds of the Texas Medical Center in collaboration with Precision Thoracic Corp.

“Prana’s cutting-edge technology was developed on the TMC campus, and we are excited to continue to support Prana in meeting its next milestone through funding from the TMC Venture Fund. The technology they are spearheading could be a game changer in how physicians detect and treat lung cancer. Congratulations to the team on this exciting announcement,” says William McKeon, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, in the release.

Micheal Haimour, director of New World Angels, has joined Prana as a board member.

“We are delighted to support CEO Joanna Nathan and her team at Prana as they seek to develop solutions for the early detection and intervention of lung cancer,” he says in the release

Since the company emerged from stealth last summer, Prana has added a few feathers to its cap as a startup. In November, Nathan pitched and won first place at Ignite Healthcare Network’s annual Fire Pitch Competition. Prana was also named a finalist in the Female-Founded Businesses category of the Houston Innovation Awards. Currently, Prana is a member of the Spring 2023 cohort of the TMCi HealthTech Accelerator.

Three female-founded health tech startups won awards at this year's Ignite Healthcare's Fire Pitch Competition. Photo courtesy of Ignite

Houston health tech startup wins female-focused pitch competition

women in health care

For the fourth year, a Houston-based, female-focused health tech organization has spotlighted the industry's emerging technology entrepreneurs.

Earlier this month, Ignite Healthcare Network’s Accelerator Program hosted its seven women-led digital health startup finalists, narrowed down from over 330 startups, at its annual Fire Pitch Competition. The nonprofit is led by a group of women executives committed to shaping the future of health care.

“The fourth year of Ignite Health’s Accelerator Program has proved to attract more and more women founders of digital tech and med device startups from around the world,” says Ayse McCracken, Ignite's founder, in a news release.

According to McCracken, 22 applicants made it into the program, which launched earlier this year. A group of judges narrowed down that group to seven finalists, before announcing the top three companies for the competition.

Joanna Nathan, CEO of Houston-based Prana Thoracic, won the top award for her company. Stephanie Gravenor, founder of Denver-based Medecipher, and Liane Clamen, founder of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts-based Adaptilens, won second and third, respectively.

The event doled out over $500,000 in total. Jay Goss, general partner of Wavemaker Three-Sixty Health, announced $100,000 investments into four finalists' companies. The finalists receiving this award are:

  • Pamela Bonnett, CEO of Denver-based Ultrasound AI
  • Christine Lum Lung, co-founder and CEO of Fort Collins, Colorado-based Origin Healthcare
  • Pamela Singh, co-founder and CEO of Houston-based CaseCTRL
  • Stephanie Gravenor, founder and CEO of Denver-based Medecipher

The partner organizations participating in this year's accelerator and event included Houston Methodist, Memorial Hermann Health System, Texas Children’s Hospital, Texas Children’s Pediatrics, The Menninger Clinic, HCA, Kindred Healthcare, Aetna, Texas Health Resources, Cook Children’s Hospital, TMC, Golden Seeds, Wavemaker 360 Health, Portfolia, Prosalus, 7Wire, Texas Halo Fund, Unity Point Ventures, and others.

“We are grateful for the support and generosity of our sponsors for helping to make this event possible,” says Cheryl Stavins, Ignite board member and co-chair of the event, in the news release. “Their support and involvement continue to ignite our mission and passion to ensure the success and recognition of women entrepreneurs in healthcare.”

Earlier in the day, Ignite Health hosted a new event called “Women Shaping the Future of Healthcare Luncheon." Eighty female executives, investors, founders, and community leaders gathered to hear from three of Ignite Health’s alumni founders: Somer Baburek, CEO of Hera Biotech, Dr. Liz Clayborne, CEO of Nasaclip, and Amanda Gorman, chief clinical officer of Nest Collaborative.

The five finalists in the BIPOC and Female-Founded Business categories for the Houston Innovation Awards share the challenges they have had to overcome. Photos courtesy

Overheard: Houston-based BIPOC, female founder finalists of 2022 share challenges overcome

eavesdropping at the houston innovation awards gala

Houston is often lauded as one of the most diverse cities in America, and that diversity is seen across its business communities as well, which includes its innovation ecosystem.

Some of the BIPOC-Founded and Female-Founded Business category finalists from the Houston Innovation Awards Gala, which will be held on November 9, shared some of the challenges they faced being in the minority of their industries and careers.

"The biggest challenge I've faced as a female BIPOC founder is having to work 2 to 4 times harder to convince individuals that I am an expert in my field, and that I know what I'm talking about when it comes to my technology and implementation."

Photo courtesy

— Asma Mirza, CEO and co-founder of Steradian Technologies. "The way I overcame it was by showing irrefutable data to support my expertise and our invention, as well as hiring a diverse team that could substantiate our claims," she adds.

"As a female founder, I used to think that I was looked at as 'less than,' compared to my male counterparts. While I still struggle with this feeling,...  I decided that the biggest hinderance in my confidence as a female founder was the lies that I was telling myself."

Photo courtesy

— Megan Eddings, founder of Accel Unite. "I felt — and still sometimes do — insecure in a room filled with male founders, not because I thought I was any less-than, but because I was thinking they thought I was less-than — before ever even meeting me," Eddings added, sharing how she tries to change her own perspective. "I now feel a responsibility to share my story, as to show other women that they are not alone, their voice matters and to keep going."

"As a BIPOC founder, it was not easy in the beginning to find the connections and network with folks that had the resources to help us with our aspirations. That was the biggest challenge in getting started."

Photo courtesy

— Enrique Carro, CEO of Blue People. "Now that we have a few clients and testimonials, we are able to pull on them to help us find new clients and connections," he continues. "But this was something that we had to really work hard on at the beginning."

"One of my fears going into the fundraising process was being seen as too weak or too fragile to lead an early-stage venture."

Photo courtesy

— Joanna Nathan, CEO of Prana Thoracic, who shares she feels this way following the loss of her son. "I found that in being transparent with potential investors, after building some trust, and speaking openly about my loss and how it has inspired me to build this company, I was able to overcome this fear."

"The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a female founder comes down to resources. Finding the capital and time to get everything done is difficult for female founders because we have a lot on our shoulders and there are systemic inequalities that make things even more difficult."

Photo courtesy

— Allie Danziger, founder and CEO of Ampersand. "I’m creating a billion dollar company, but I’m a mom of two young girls, the executive director of one nonprofit and a board member of another, and a dependable friend, wife, daughter, sister and niece, too," she continues. "Other female founders and VCs are stretched, too, so it can be difficult to connect and find time to figure it out together. I have been very fortunate and also worked really hard to find both the time and resources to make it all work."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Joanna Nathan of Prana Thoracic, James Rees of BWT, and Aimee Gardner of SurgWise. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know — a special Labor Day edition, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from human resources to medical devices — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Joanna Nathan, CEO and founder of Prana Thoracic

Joanna Nathan joins the Houston Innovators Podcast and explains why she's taken on leading a medical device startup. Photo courtesy of Joanna Nathan

If there was a Houston innovation ecosystem playing card, Joanna Nathan would definitely have BINGO by now. From starting a startup while a student at Rice University and being an early hire of medical device company Saranas to leading investment at Johnson & Johnson's Center for Device Innovation, Nathan is headed back to the founder seat with Prana Thoracic, a new company planning to equip physicians with a better tool for lung cancer intervention.

"Unlike breast, prostate, and other types of cancers, we historically have not actively screened for lung cancer," Nathan says on this week's Houston Innovation Podcast. "Screening has only just begun in this world, and because of that, physicians still need the right tools to take early screening information and turn it into early intervention."

Last month, Nathan, who serves as CEO of the company, and Prana announced that Nucore Medical Inc., its wholly owned subsidiary, has been awarded a $3 million grant from CPRIT. Click here to read more and stream the podcast episode.

James Rees, chief impact officer at Botanic Water Technologies

James Rees is the Houston-based chief impact officer at BWT. Photo via LinkedIn

This probably isn't breaking news, but the world is on the midst of a water crisis. More than 2 million Americans don’t have access to clean drinking water, according to one study by the U.S. Water Alliance group.

To help close that water gap, international firm, Botanical Water Technologies, has plans to expand its presence in the United States with the Houston region being a strategic area to roll out the implementation of a patented water filtration technology. In addition, the group is launching a blockchain enabled trading platform with Fujitsu to help support the business.

“Water is finite,” says Houston-based James Rees, chief impact officer at BWT. “Due to global growth and climate conditions, we are going to have between 20 to 30 percent less water available to us by 2025. Communities are facing issues with water infrastructure. Some communities don't have water. This is where BWT plans to come in to help.” Click here to read more.Click here to read more.

Aimee Gardner, CEO and co-founder of SurgWise

Aimee Gardner is the CEO and president of Houston-based SurgeWise. Photo via surgwise.com

Over the course of the summer, Aimee Gardner has been writing strategic columns for startups with hiring tips. Her articles have focused on scaling quickly, why not to just trust your gut when hiring, and attracting and retaining a diverse workforce.

Gardner's advice is especially keen since she herself is a startup founder — but also has a Master's degree in organizational psychology. For years, she's been advising both her clients at her company SurgWise Consulting, but also students at Baylor College of Medicine.

"If your startup has gotten to the point of being able to grow the team, it is clear that ample vision, strategy, and innovation has been dedicated to the mission up until this point. Hiring in the next round of team members is not a process that should undergo any less dedication," she writes in one of her articles. "Ensuring that those around you share your vision, goals, and have a complementary set of skills and attributes will be critical to ensure success in your company’s growth and achievements." Click here to read her guest columns,

Joanna Nathan joins the Houston Innovators Podcast and explains why she's taken on leading a medical device startup. Photo courtesy of Joanna Nathan

Why this Houston innovator dropped everything to move the needle on lung cancer diagnostics

Houston innovators podcast episode 149

After years of leading Johnson and Johnson's Center for Device Innovation, Joanna Nathan has hopped into the founder's seat in order to tackle early-stage lung cancer diagnostics.

"Unlike breast, prostate, and other types of cancers, we historically have not actively screened for lung cancer," Nathan says on this week's Houston Innovation Podcast. "Screening has only just begun in this world, and because of that, physicians still need the right tools to take early screening information and turn it into early intervention."

That's where Prana Thoracic comes in. Last week, Nathan, who serves as CEO of the company, and Prana announced that Nucore Medical Inc., its wholly owned subsidiary, has been awarded a $3 million grant from CPRIT.

Nathan says on the podcast that the technology behind the company has been incubating within CDI for years, but over the past several months Nathan decided to take on the role of leading the company as it grows its team and heads to commercialization with first in-human trials, which the funding from CPRIT and investors will support.

Lung cancer remains among the most deadly cancers, with most patients dying within a year of diagnosis. In addition to these stats, Nathan says her recent personal experiences have motivated her in this career path. She shares on the show how, within the span of a year, she lost her young son, Lionel, to an unknown medical condition and witnessed her dad's suffering of a near fatal heart attack.

"I was already in medical innovation, but I spent five days in the hospital with Lionel. I remember saying goodbye to him and walking away and thinking, 'I cannot imagine finding meaning or a reason to go back to work if I was doing anything else,'" Nathan says. "If I can work my whole life and prevent just one patient or one family from going through the pain that I did, I would consider my career a success."

Nathan says her ability to do that meant getting into a role where she had a more hands-on responsibility and interaction with medical device technology. Now, with the fresh funding and a growing startup, she's laser focused on finding like-minded individuals to build out Prana's team.

"I hope that what we can build not only something that attracts really talented engineers, executives, and entrepreneurs, but also people who want to do mission-driven work," Nathan says. "That mindset of driving this toward a patient — and ultimately that patient impact be what pushes us forward."

Nathan shares more of her story on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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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.

Annual student startup competition in Houston names teams for 2024

ready to pitch

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship announced the 42 student-led teams worldwide that will compete in the highly competitive Rice Business Plan Competition this spring.

The annual competition, known as one of the world’s largest and richest intercollegiate student startup competitions, will take place April 4 to 6 in Houston. Teams in this year's competition represent 35 universities from four countries, including two teams from Houston and four others from Texas.

Teams, made up of graduate students from a college or university anywhere in the world, will present their plans before 350 angel, venture capital, and corporate investors to compete for more than $1 million in prizes. Last year, teams were awarded $3.4 million in investment and in-kind prizes, the largest total awarded thus far in the decades-old competition after some investors doubled — or even tripled — down on investment awards.

The 2024 RBPC will focus on five categories: Energy, Cleantech and Sustainability; Hard Tech; Life Sciences and Healthcare Solutions; Digital Enterprise; Consumer Products and Services.

Invitees include:

  • AIRS ML, Imperial College London (United Kingdom)
  • Blaze Power, UCLA
  • ChiChi Foods, Washington University in St. Louis
  • CureWave Sciences, Rutgers University
  • CurveAssure, Johns Hopkins University
  • D.Sole, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Dendritic Health AI, Northwestern University
  • Dialysis Innovations, University of Michigan
  • FlowCellutions, University of Pittsburgh
  • HEXAspec, Rice University
  • HydroPhos Solutions, University of New Hampshire
  • Icorium Engineering Company, University of Kansas
  • Informuta, Tulane University
  • Kiwi Charge, York University (Canada)
  • Korion Health, University of Maryland, College Park
  • Limitless Aeronautics, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University
  • LiQuidium, University of Houston
  • Malleous, University of Pittsburgh
  • MesaQuantum, Harvard University
  • MineMe, University of Pennsylvania
  • NaviAI, Cornell University
  • NutriAI, Tufts University
  • OSPHIM, RWTH Aachen University (Germany)
  • Overture Games, Northwestern University
  • OX SOX, University of Georgia
  • Oxylus Energy, Yale University
  • Palanquin Power, University of Texas at Austin
  • Paradigm Robotics, University of Texas at Austin
  • Particle-N, University of Connecticut
  • Poka Labs, Harvard University
  • Power2Polymer, RWTH Aachen University (Germany)
  • ProPika, University of Arkansas
  • Protein Pints, Michigan State University
  • Samtracs, Oklahoma State University
  • Sancorda Medical, University of Texas at Dallas
  • Side Coach Sports, Baylor University
  • Socian AI, Rochester Institute of Technology
  • Somnair, Johns Hopkins University
  • TouchStone, University of California, Berkeley
  • Vita Innovations, Stanford University
  • WattShift, University of Chicago
  • ZebraMD, UCLA

The companies join more than 700 RBPC alumns that have collectively raised more than $5.5 billion in funding. More than 269 RBPC companies are in business or have made successful exits, according to the Rice Alliance's website.

Last year, Texas A&M-based team FluxWorks took home $350,000 and won the competition based on judges scores. The company's technology includes magnetic gears that are four times quieter than standard with 99 percent efficiency.

Sygne Solutions and TierraClimate, two Rice-led teams, won second and fourth places, respectively. Zaymo, from Brigham Young University, took home the most in investment dollars. Click here to see the full list of 2023 teams.