This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Peter Rodriguez of Rice University, Kike Oduba of WellnessWits, and Phil Sitter of RepeatMD. 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 recently making headlines in Houston across business, software, and digital health.

Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business

Peter Rodriguez joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the school's growth and development as an innovation leader. Photo courtesy Annie Tao/Rice University

Entrepreneurship doesn't require a MBA from Rice University, but Dean Peter Rodriguez wants to make sure that the students who do pass through the halls of the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business are well prepared for creating a successful company.

"We really want to be the deliverer of the software in people's brain of how to launch great companies and to be trumpeting the opportunities here," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Rodriguez joined the school as dean in 2016, and since then he's doubled MBA enrollment, grown the tenure-track faculty by over 40 percent, launched an online graduate degree, created an undergraduate business major, and more.

"When I came here, I thought Rice had the best strategic foundation of any university for a great business school — and a lot of that is being really closely connected to Houston and bringing in innovation," he says on the show. Read more.

Kike Oduba, founder and CEO of WellnessWits

WellnessWits, founded by Kike Oduba to enhance patient-physician interaction, has integrated AI with the help of IBM. Photo via WellnessWits.com

A Houston startup aimed at transforming healthcare with solutions for chronic disease and its prevention has teamed up with IBM technology.

WellnessWits has embedded IBM watsonx Assistant into its app for both iOS and Android. By making generative AI part of the app, WellnessWits now boasts an AI-based chat functionality.

That cutting-edge aspect of the platform allows patients to get information on chronic disease more quickly than ever, even before meeting with their physician. But it helps with that, too, aiding in scheduling appointments more easily with doctors who specialize in a host of chronic maladies.

“I founded WellnessWits as a platform for shared medical appointments where doctors with large patient loads can see them in groups and offer collective shared medical experiences to people suffering from chronic conditions. The goal is to bridge this divide, leveraging the strength of digital communities to enhance the overall well-being and healthcare experiences of individuals everywhere,” WellnessWits Founder and CEO Dr. Kike Oduba, a physician and informatician, writes in a blog post. Read more.

Phil Sitter, founder and CEO of RepeatMD

Fresh off a win at the Houston Innovation Awards, Phil Sitter's RepeatMD has raised funding. Photo via RepeatMD

Just nine months after its seed round, a Houston startup with a software platform for the aesthetic and wellness industry has secured $40 million in venture capital and $10 million in debt facility.

RepeatMD, a SaaS platform, announced today that it's secured $50 million, which includes a $10 million debt facility from Silicon Valley Bank. The round was co-led by Centana Growth Partners and Full In Partners with participation from PROOF and Mercury Fund, which also contributed to the seed round earlier this year.

The mobile ecommerce platform, launched in October 2021 by Phil Sitter, targets practices within the med spa and aesthetics industry. In the United States, the med spa market is slated to hit $19 billion in 2023, according to the company's press release, while the global aesthetics market is forecasted to reach to nearly $332 billion by 2030.

“Even though the aesthetics and wellness industry has continued to innovate a growing range of life-changing treatments, practices continue to face challenges selling treatments and services that are new and unfamiliar to patients,” Sitter, CEO of RepeatMD, says in the release. “Our goal at RepeatMD is to give these practice owners the technology to elevate their patients’ experience. Our platform serves as a med-commerce engine equipped with the same firepower as large retailers to convert sales inside and outside of practice operating hours.” Read more.

Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the school's growth and development as an innovation leader. Photo courtesy Annie Tao/Rice University

Rice University business dean on expanding to continue supporting Houston innovators

houston innovators podcast episode 214

Entrepreneurship doesn't require a MBA from Rice University, but Dean Peter Rodriguez wants to make sure that the students who do pass through the halls of the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business are well prepared for creating a successful company.

"We really want to be the deliverer of the software in people's brain of how to launch great companies and to be trumpeting the opportunities here," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Rodriguez joined the school as dean in 2016, and since then he's doubled MBA enrollment, grown the tenure-track faculty by over 40 percent, launched an online graduate degree, created an undergraduate business major, and more.

"When I came here, I thought Rice had the best strategic foundation of any university for a great business school — and a lot of that is being really closely connected to Houston and bringing in innovation," he says on the show.



And he's got more in the works, even including expansion plans for the school's physical space next to the recently renovated McNair Hall. He says the school is currently working on a 110,000-square-foot building adjacent to McNair.

"It's largely going to house our undergraduate programming, some of the MBA programming, and create a lot more space for all the things we've done in the past six or several years," Rodriguez says. "It's always a bit of a battle keeping up with investment needs and making students ready for the world."

Rodriguez calls out some of the ways Rice has increased its connection to Houston's business and innovation community, including opening the Ion, introducing innovative programs to take innovation on campus to commercialization, and more.

"We have to be hyper connected to everything going on in the city to do our job well," he says.

One of the recent way the school has connect its student body to the Houston business community is through its recent Rice Energy Finance Summit, which took place earlier this month. The student-led program has been ongoing for 15 years and gives students a chance to work with business leaders in the energy sector.

"One of the five pillars of our strategy is to be the leading business school of the country for the studying and advancement of the energy transition and decarbonization of the economy," he says. "We think that we can be the premiere school for training people in the rapidly evolving field of energy."

Here's what Houston-based online programs are ranked as best in the country. Photo by Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Houston university's online MBA program rises in the ranks of newly released report

A for improvement

Rice University's online MBA program has something to brag about. According to a new report, the program has risen through the ranks of other online MBA curriculums.

MBA@Rice, the online program at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice, has ranked higher in four categories in the latest edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Online Programs. The report evaluated schools based on data specifically related to their distance education MBA programs, and U.S. News has a separate ranking for non-MBA graduate business degrees in areas such as finance, marketing and management. The MBA list focused on engagement, peer assessment, faculty credentials and training, student excellence, and services and technologies.

“We use the same professors to deliver the same rigorous, high-touch MBA in our online MBA as we do in all our campus-based programs,” said Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez. “The strong national rankings recognize our success in reaching highly talented working professionals who don’t live near enough to our campus or for whom an online program is the best option.”

Rice's virtual MBA program ranked No. 12 (tied) in the 2023 list, which was up several spots from its 2022 ranking, which was No. 20. Additionally, Rice stood out in these other three categories:

  • Best Online MBA Programs for Veterans: tied for No. 10 (No. 14 last year).
  • Best Online Business Analytics MBA Programs: tied for No. 10 (tied for No. 12 last year).
  • Best Online General Management MBA Programs: tied for No. 7 (tied for No. 11 last year).

Rice recently announced a hybrid MBA program that combines online instruction with in-person engagement. The first cohort is slated to start this summer.

The MBA@Rice program is the top-ranked Texas-based program on the virtual MBA list. Several other programs from the Lone Star State make the list of 366 schools, including:

  • University of Texas at Dallas at No. 17
  • Texas Tech University at No. 33
  • Baylor University, University of North Texas, and West Texas A&M University tied for No, 65

U.S News & World Report ranked other online programs. Here's how Houston schools placed on the other lists:

  • The University of Houston tied for No. 10 in Best Online Master's in Education Programs and tied for No. 75 in Best Online Master's in Business Programs
  • Rice University, in addition to its MBA ranking, tied for No. 27 on the Online Master’s in Computer Information Technology Programs ranking after being tied for No. 49 last year
  • University of Houston-Downtown ranked No. 26 in Best Online Master's in Criminal Justice Programs and tied for No. 55 in Best Online Bachelor's Programs

The full list of best online higher education programs ranked by U.S. News & World Report is available online.

A new MBA program at Rice University will allow for students to get the the convenience of online instruction with monthly on-campus engagement. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University rolls out hybrid MBA track

back to school

Rice University is making it easier to get an MBA. The Houston university has launched a new hybrid program.

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business will launch a new Hybrid MBA program this summer. According to Rice, it's the first of its kind in Texas. The program "preserves the benefits of the in-person educational experience while leveraging the flexibility offered by online learning through live Zoom sessions and asynchronous course content," the university explains in a news release.

"After researching demand for MBA programs, we found that prospective students want an in-person experience but not one that meets every week," says Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, in the release. "Our Hybrid MBA makes it easier for working professionals in Houston and regionally to earn a Rice MBA with the on-campus experience they want.”

The new track is 22 months and has a 54-credit requirement that will feature the same faculty within the existing program. In-person class will be once a month, and online education will be conducted in the weeks between. According to Rice, tuition — listed online as $67,500 — includes the cost of a hotel stay close to Rice during on-campus weekends and immersion weeks. This provides students an opportunity to connect with classmates and avoid a commute.

The first class of the Hybrid MBA Program begins in July with a one-week immersion on campus. There will be one immersion week at the end of the first year, and the program concludes with a one-week Global Field Experience in May 2025 before students return to campus for graduation, according to Rice.

Why relying on intuition can backfire when it comes to crafting a successful business strategy. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Know when to trust your intuition — and when to think outside the box

houston voices

When a fast-casual restaurant chain started to see stagnating sales, the company’s CEO came up with a solution: adding new, higher-quality menu items.

To validate his thinking, he informally interviewed a few dozen diners at different locations, asking them how they would feel about more and higher-quality menu items. After getting enthusiastic responses from several customers, he went ahead with his plan. Sales fell further.

So what went wrong? Systematic surveys showed that what created the most value for customers was a fast dining experience with a short wait time, a simple menu with a few items, ample parking and a bill under $12 per meal. Higher quality and an expanded menu did not correlate at all with customer value. Where the company’s CEO went wrong was by relying on salience instead of importance.

Salience refers to factors that are top-of-mind and easy to recall, which become prominent and are then incorrectly prioritized. A classic example is a 1979 study that surveyed people about their perceived risk of dying from causes like drowning, murder or cancer. The study’s authors found that people thought they were more likely to die from causes that were mentioned more often in their local news, such as murder, when in fact they were at much greater risk of dying from common but less prominent causes such as cancer.

The CEO made food quality and expanded offerings salient to himself by talking about them to a small group of customers. It was an easy way for him to feel good about his efforts. But, like many executives, he relied on salience.

Salience is easy and convenient, but it’s also the curse of decision-making. It simply reinforces executives’ prior beliefs rather than diagnosing the true cause-and-effect relationship. Imagine if a doctor saw a patient with stomach pain and recommended an appendectomy because a patient she’d seen the day before needed one. Or if the doctor asked the patient to recommend the treatment himself. Patient outcomes would likely falter and the doctor would go out of business (and perhaps lose her medical license).

Thankfully, doctors don’t operate this way. They rely on the statistically measurable relationship between critical inputs and outputs for decision-making. So should senior executives and CEOs.

Informal customer conversations draw primarily on gut feelings, hunches and top-of-mind ideas, and as such, aren’t reliable indicators of true customer value. Like all of us, customers often tailor their responses to the audience they’re addressing. So a company’s vice president of service might speak with a customer who says they love the service, while the same customer might tell an HR executive they love the employees and then go on to tell the VP of sales that they would like lower prices. These on-the-spot responses typically have no significant impact on or statistical correlation with customer value, which ultimately drives sales and profits.

To craft a successful strategy, executives need to use a systematic, statistical process that starts with choosing a clear outcome or output, such as customer value or employee retention. The next step is to measure inputs that drive that output, and then quantitatively correlate each input to the output. Only those inputs that drive the desired output should be included in the company’s strategy.

Take, for example, a nursing home that attempted to craft a strategy for decreasing employee turnover. Relying on casual conversations with a few dozen employees, executives assumed higher pay would increase retention. They were wrong.

When they statistically correlated multiple inputs — higher pay, health benefits, supervisor respect, promotion opportunities and paid vacation — with retention, they realized their intuitive leaps had been incorrect. Only health insurance and promotions were correlated with increased employee retention. Higher pay had no effect.

Committing to this type of systematic review to drive strategy requires humility on the part of senior executives. The nursing home executives were able to look past their own assumptions and learn from this type of statistical analysis, recognizing the limits of salience-driven thinking and deferring to algorithms that could better predict the inputs of turnover than they could.

Doctors understand this as well. To treat their patients, they rely on data from groups like the Food and Drug Administration or the National Institutes of Health, which run clinical trials and rely on data, statistics and an infrastructure of knowledge.

Unfortunately, many senior executives lack humility when it comes to strategic planning. They equate decades of salience-laden thinking with a deep understanding of correlations between inputs and strategic outputs. They might think, “I’ve been in this industry long enough to know what works,” or “Since this worked then, it will work now as well.” But more often than not, relying on salience-laden intuition alone will not achieve the desired outcome.

“Focus: How to Plan Strategy and Improve Execution to Achieve Growth” lays out specific steps for senior and mid-level executives who want to follow systematic, statistical processes to drive their company’s strategy.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Vikas Mittal, J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Business and author of “Focus: How to Plan Strategy and Improve Execution to Achieve Growth.”

According to a new report, Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business has all the ingredients or a top MBA program. Photo courtesy of Rice

Houston university's MBA program claims coveted top spot of annual ranking

top of class

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business has raked in yet another top spot on an annual list of top MBA programs.

A new ranking from Poets & Quants, which covers news about business schools, puts Rice at No. 3 among the world's best MBA programs for entrepreneurship. That's up from No. 15 on last year's list.

The Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis grabbed the top spot in this year's ranking. Elsewhere in Texas, the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business lands at No. 14, the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth at No. 35, and the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in University Park at No. 36.

Poets & Quants judged the schools on 16 metrics related to their entrepreneurship initiatives.

Poets & Quants says Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business "itself is less than three decades old. But entrepreneurship was baked into its DNA from the get-go. The late Ed Williams and current professor Al Napier are credited with starting the entrepreneurial focus. But it wasn't until 2013 when Jones plucked Yael Hochberg from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management that the program really started to surge."

Rice's entrepreneurship offering combines academic courses and associated programs led by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie) with programs offered by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

"The ability to be a student while working on your startup in class, under the expert guidance of our world-class faculty, gives our Rice entrepreneurs a competitive advantage over any others out there," Hochberg, head of the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative and academic director of the Rice Alliance, says in a news release.

The Rice Alliance's OwlSpark Accelerator supplements the MBA program. The accelerator serves as a capstone program and launchpad for students seeking to start their own businesses. Meanwhile, the Rice Business Plan Competition, the largest intercollegiate student startup competition in the world, lets students pitch their startups in front of more than 300 judges. And the Rice Alliance Technology Venture Forums allows students to showcase their startups to investors and corporations.

"The ability for students to launch their nascent startups, obtain mentoring from members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem, and then pitch to hundreds of angel investors, venture capitalists, and corporations provides a unique opportunity that cannot be found on many campuses or in many regions," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance.

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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.