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

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 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."

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— 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."

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— 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."

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— 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."

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— 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."

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— 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.

Prana Thoracic Inc., a medical device company developing a tool for early interception of lung cancer, announced a $3 million grant from CPRIT. Photo via Getty Images

Houston lung cancer diagnostics startup launches, snags $3M grant

cancer innovation

An oncology device company has secured a grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, the startup announced this week.

Houston-based Prana Thoracic Inc., a medical device company developing a tool for early interception of lung cancer, announced that Nucore Medical Inc., its wholly owned subsidiary, has been awarded a $3 million grant from CPRIT. The funding will support first-in-human studies and commercialization of Prana Thoracic’s technology.

“We’re excited to be recognized by CPRIT and believe this award speaks to the potential of Prana Thoracic’s surgical oncology devices,” says Joanna Nathan, CEO and founder of Prana Thoracic, in a news release. "This funding will accelerate our technology to the bedside, enabling us to provide Texans and patients all over the world with a definitive diagnosis of their pulmonary nodules earlier in their patient journey."

Prana Thoracic'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 leading cause of cancer death in the United States, consisting of nearly 25 percent of all cancer deaths. The goal for Prana Thoracic is to equip physicians with the technology to more efficiently sample tissue from at-risk patients and dramatically improve outcomes.

“There has long been a gap between a simple needle biopsy of a nodule deep in the lung and opening the chest to remove a large segment of the lung to help diagnose early lung cancer, particularly when the nodules are very small,” says Dr. Edward Boyle, founder and one of the inventors of the technology, in the release. “As inventors, we partnered with the Johnson & Johnson MedTech Center for Device Innovation to help take this through design and early testing. At this point we are eager to advance the technology through first-in-human studies.”

Nathan, according to LinkedIn, left her role as manager of new ventures the Center for Device Innovation at the Texas Medical Center to pursue this new role at Prana Thoracic. She was at CDI for four years.

Joanna Nathan is back in the founder's seat. Photo via LinkedIn

These three startups walked away from a pitch competition with thousands of dollars in equity-free prizes. Photo courtesy of Rice University

3 alumni-founded startups claim cash prizes at Rice University pitch competition

winner, winner

Three startups founded by Rice University graduates have won investment prizes at an annual pitch competition.

The annual H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, or NRLC, welcomed a panel of judges to hear from six alumni-founded startups in the finals last week. The prizes on the line totaled $65,000 in equity-free funding. The event, which is separate from the student version of the competition, is hosted by Rice’s Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The big winner of the 2022 competition was Rhythio Medical, a preventative heart arrhythmias treatment startup. The company won first place, which included $30,000 in equity-free funding, as well as the Audience Choice Award that came with $1,500.

Taking second place, Synopic, which facilitates faster and more accurate surgical procedures through improved endoscopic vision technology, won $20,000 in equity-free funding. Lastly, Green Room, a platform that streamlines taxes and payments for touring artists, clinched third place and $15,000.

The event, named for Rice professor emeritus and entrepreneurship program founder H. Albert Napier, was sponsored by Mercury Fund, T-Minus Solutions and Chevron Technology Ventures. This year's finalists were selected by judges made up of Rice alumni. Three judges — Danielle Conkling, director at Silicon Valley Bank, Paul Manwell, senior director at Google, and Joanna Nathan, manager of new ventures at Johnson & Johnson — listened to and evaluated each company's five-minute pitch and followed up with questions.

Rhythio Medical was founded by CEO Kunal Shah, class of 2022, and Savannah Esteve, who also serves as head of product. The technology includes a surgically injected wire that makes an irregular heart work like a healthy one. It works alongside a traditional implantable cardioverter defibrillator, however, the wire but works to prevent arrhythmias, while ICDs treat arrhythmias with a painful shock to the patient’s heart. The company lists the Texas Heart Institute and the University of Texas at Austin as its research partners.

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Climatetech incubator announces C-suite promotion, Houston jobs, and nonprofit transition

greentown updates

The new year has brought some big news from Greentown Labs.

The Somerville, Massachusetts-based climatetech incubator with its second location at Greentown Houston named a new member to its C-suite, is seeking new Houston team members, and has officially finished its transition into a nonprofit.

Juliana Garaizar, who originally joined Greentown as launch director ahead of the Houston opening in 2021, has been promoted from vice president of innovation to chief development and investment officer.

"I'm refocusing on the Greentown Labs level in a development role, which means fundraising for both locations and potentially new ones," Garaizar tells InnovationMap. "My role is not only development, but also investment. That's something I'm very glad to be pursuing with my investment hat. Access to capital is key for all our members, and I'm going to be in charge of refining and upgrading our investment program."

While she will also maintain her role as head of the Houston incubator, Greentown Houston is also hiring a general manager position to oversee day-to-day and internal operations of the hub. Garaizar says this role will take some of the internal-facing responsibilities off of her plate.

"Now that we are more than 80 members, we need more internal coordination," she explains. "Considering that the goal for Greentown is to grow to more locations, there's going to be more coordination and, I'd say, more autonomy for the Houston campus."

The promotion follows a recent announcement that Emily Reichert, who served as CEO for the company for a decade, has stepped back to become CEO emeritus. Greentown is searching for its next leader and CFO Kevin Taylor is currently serving as interim CEO. Garaizar says the transition is representative of Greentown's future as it grows to more locations and a larger organization.

"Emily's transition was planned — but, of course, in stealth mode," Garaizar says, adding that Reichert is on the committee that's finding the new CEO. "She thinks scaling is a different animal from putting (Greentown) together, which she did really beautifully."

Garaizar says her new role will include overseeing Greentown's new nonprofit status. She tells InnovationMap that the organization originally was founded as a nonprofit, but converted to a for-profit in order to receive a loan at its first location. Now, with the mission focus Greentown has and the opportunities for grants and funding, it was time to convert back to a nonprofit, Garaizar says.

"When we started fundraising for Houston, everyone was asking why we weren't a nonprofit. That opened the discussion again," she says. "The past year we have been going through that process and we can finally say it has been completed.

"I think it's going to open the door to a lot more collaboration and potential grants," she adds.

Greentown is continuing to grow its team ahead of planned expansion. The organization hasn't yet announced its next location — Garaizar says the primary focus is filling the CEO position first. In Houston, the hub is also looking for an events manager to ensure the incubator is providing key programming for its members, as well as the Houston innovation community as a whole.

Photos: Houston coworking company expands with new location

open for biz

Calling all coworkers north of Houston — there's a new spot in town to set up shop.

The Cannon, a coworking company with locations in Houston and Galveston, has expanded north of Houston for the first time. A new Cannon workspace opened at The Park at Fish Creek retail center (618 Fish Creek Thoroughfare) in Montgomery last month. On February 1 at 4 pm, the new community is holding an open house to tour the space.

“The Cannon is a Houston innovation institution, and we meet demand where innovators and entrepreneurs live—in this case, Montgomery County,” says Jon Lambert, CEO of The Cannon, in a news release. “The goal is to grow The Cannon community – and entrepreneurship overall – regionally, via the Fish Creek brick-and mortar space, and to also expand utilization of our digital community platform, Cannon Connect.”

With 8,100 square feet of space, the facility has 19 private offices, three conference rooms, and several gathering and working areas. Memberships — from assigned desks and private space to day passes — are now available. All Fish Creek members receive access to Cannon Connect, a global, digital community platform that provides resources, networking and building blocks for business growth.

Photo courtesy of The Cannon

This Houston entrepreneur is enabling fashion upcycling for more sustainable style

houston innovators podcast episode 170

When shopping online one day, Hannah Le saw a need for a platform that allowed transactions between upcycling fashion designers and shoppers looking for unique, sustainable pieces.

Le created RE.STATEMENT, an online shopping marketplace for upcycled clothing. Before RE.STATEMENT, designers were limited to Etsy, which is focused on handmade pieces, or Poshmark and Depop, which are dedicated to thrift finds. Upcycle fashion designers didn't have their own, unique platform to sell on — and, likewise, shoppers were scattered across sites too.

"These marketplaces are really good for what they do," Le says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "but, whenever I think of someone looking for something unique and sustainable, it's hard for me to imagine finding that on these marketplaces."

The platform soft launched in December with 25 upcycling designers and over 1,200 buyers that had been on the company's waitlist for almost nine months. Now that the site is live, Le hopes to give both buyers and sellers quick access to transactions.

"Most designers give up if they haven't sold an item within three months," Le explains. "That's something RE.STATEMENT has dedicated its business model to — making sure that items sell faster and at a higher value than any other marketplace."

Le says that she started with buyers to see what exactly they were looking for, then she searched and found the designers looking to sell their pieces, and the current platform is dynamic and flexible to the needs of users within her community.

"Even today, it changes every single day depending on how users are interacting with the website and what sellers are saying that they need — really communicating with buyers and sellers is how the marketplace is evolving," she says.

RE.STATEMENT's ability to quickly evolve has been due to its early stage, Le explains on the show. She's not yet taken on institutional funding or hired anyone else other than tech support. She says this allows her to quickly make changes or try out new things for users.

"For me, there are still so many things I want to prove to myself before I bring others involved," she says. "To start, it's coming up with new opportunities for buyers to interact with the website so that we can keep learning from them."

Le has already proven some success to herself. Last year, she took home one of three prizes offered at the city's Liftoff Houston competition. The contest, which gives Houston entrepreneurs pitch practice and mentorship, awarded RE.STATEMENT $10,000 for winning in the product category.

"I wanted to see how far I could go," Le says of the competition where she got to introduce her business to Mayor Sylvester Turner and a whole new audience of people. "I had pitched before, but this was the first time that I was onstage and I just felt like I belonged there."

Le shares more about her vision for RE.STATEMENT and the integral role Houston plays in her success on the show.