This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Ryan Sitton of Pinnacle, Julia P. Clarke of Raba Kistner Inc., and Phillip Yates of Equiliberty. Courtesy photos

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

Ryan Sitton, CEO of Pinnacle

Ryan Sitton joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his career in data and reliability. Photo courtesy of Ryan Sitton

Data analysis for big industry came first — before the technology that can support this analysis even entered the scene. Ryan Sitton, CEO and founder of Pinnacle, a Houston company that offers its clients streamline data management, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his passion is using data to drive better decision making to drive more sustainable and reliable operations.

"I was basically doing data analytics in the mid 2000s before it was sexy. I was pulling together data in chemical plants and refineries and trying to predict how these plants would behave with the data I had," Sitton says. "I realized early on how there was so much opportunity here — but we don't have the technologies or the methodology to do it."

But over the years, the technology has caught up and now Sitton is able to provide clients with even more data-driven solutions. Click here to read more.

Julia P. Clarke, senior geotechnical manager in Houston at Raba Kistner Inc.

Julia P. Clarke knows what it's like to be the only woman in a room. Photo courtesy of Raba Kistner

Women in STEM are in Houston, writes Julia P. Clarke, an engineer at a local firm in town, but there's work to be done to making them stay. Supporting women across the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields begins in the classroom, she writes in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"I grew up in Jamaica and then immigrated to the United States. It wasn't until I was recognized by my high school teacher, Mrs. Owens, for my natural ability to excel in subjects like science and math that I fell in love with the basis of engineering," she explains. "Without the mentorship and investment of teachers and professionals throughout my career, I would not be where I am today." Click here to read more.

Phillip Yates, founder of Equiliberty

This founder is bridging the wealth gap for Black Houstonians. Photo courtesy of Equiliberty

Phillip Yates, a Houston-area attorney, envisioned a company that could solve the societal problems that perpetuate poverty. He started Equiliberty, a technology company that's part financial resource and part social network, to help provide underrepresented individuals with educational resources to secure financial success and a space to use their talents to create community-driven wealth.

The platform provides business development services, educational resources, access to capital, and mentorship to help users find financial independence.

"When I created Equiliberty, I envisioned a world where everybody has access to mentors," said Yates in a press release. "I know firsthand the importance of having a supportive network and community dedicated to your success." Click here to read more.

Female engineers are here in Houston, but let's work together to ensure they are here to stay. Photo via Christina Morillo/Pexels

How to attract and retain female engineers for the Houston workforce

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As Houston continues to invest in resiliency for our growing city, a well-equipped workforce is needed to meet the demand for critical infrastructure. It is also important that in a city as diverse as Houston, the engineering and construction talent that encompasses our workforce is reflective of the city itself, aligning with our ever-changing demographics.

While women continue to make strides in the STEM field, according to Pew Research Center, women's shares in the field of engineering have inched up only slightly, from 12% in 1990 to 15% today. And while women now earn a majority of all undergraduate and advanced degrees, they remain a small share of degree earners in fields like engineering and computer science — areas where they are significantly underrepresented in the workforce.

Diversity yields creativity, and women bring a valuable and unique perspective to problem solving and innovation. I grew up in Jamaica and then immigrated to the United States. It wasn't until I was recognized by my high school teacher, Mrs. Owens, for my natural ability to excel in subjects like science and math that I fell in love with the basis of engineering. Without the mentorship and investment of teachers and professionals throughout my career, I would not be where I am today.

In Houston, it is not a question of talent — we have plenty of diverse talent, and many young women entering the engineering workforce. The issue we run into is keeping them here and elevating them to reach the pinnacle of their discipline.

If we want to inspire young women to join the field, and ensure more women remain in it, we need to invest in mentor relationships and create space and opportunities for successful women to grow into positions of leadership.

Invest

Many would agree that mentorship plays a key role in career growth and development, but we need to be specific about what that means and how to do it effectively. For a mentor relationship to be impactful, it needs to be continuous and personal. When girls are in grade school, they are impressionable and open to inspiration. We have the opportunity to help them build confidence and make a difference in their futures.

It is important to remember that women will need several mentors throughout their lives. Obtaining an engineering degree is not easy, and upon graduation, young professionals come to the realization that what was taught in school can be different from what a job requires. New mentors are needed throughout the many seasons of personal and professional growth, and it is the responsibility of successful women engineers to take the time to develop true, lasting relationships with the next generation. We need more individuals who are willing to reach out to young women at a relatable level and establish that personal touch.

Inspire

Once we have women committed to a career in engineering, how do we foster them to go further in the field? We need more females in leadership roles. The high school teacher I mentioned was female and African American. Being able to relate to her eliminated barriers for me. I told myself that if she can do this, and she believes in me and looks like me, then I can do this, too. Young women and professionals need to be able to look at a company or professional organization's board members and executives and see faces that look like their own.

Listen

Last year, over 20 million Americans were out of work due to COVID-19, yet as the pandemic eases, millions of women have yet to return to the workplace. While this may be due to a complex mix of factors, I am left wondering if business leaders are actually asking women why they haven't returned. Many companies make assumptions regarding women's priorities, needs and expectations, without having a conversation. We are left with a shortage in our workforce, which will impact Houston sooner than most cities, and there needs to be an open dialogue between businesses and women to discover what they need to be successful.

Lastly, as women, it is our responsibility to use our voice. If I were to have let the assumptions of others guide my life and career path, I would not be where I am today. If you can persist and you are resilient, you will succeed. Women are here, but let's work together to ensure they are here to stay.

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Julia P. Clarke is senior geotechnical manager in Houston at Raba Kistner, Inc., an engineering consulting and program management firm based in San Antonio.

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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.