Houston-based Proxima Clinical Research has expanded its footprint thanks to a recent partnership. Image via proximacro.com

Houston-based Proxima Clinical Research announced this month that it will expand its clinical trial offerings by adding NEXT Oncology to its Early Phase Oncology Network, or EPON.

NEXT Oncology is a Phase I clinical trial treatment center with locations in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Virginia, as well as international locations in Barcelona and Madrid. These centers provide innovative and investigational treatments and therapies to patients with advanced forms of cancers.

The addition of NEXT Oncology's clinics brings Proxima's oncology network up to 14 physical locations and eight clinical practices, Robbin Frnka, executive director of clinical development and strategy at Proxima CRO tells InnovationMap.

“Early phase oncology trials are some of the most delicate and important trials to conduct, both from a science perspective and in offering hope for late-stage patients,” Dr. Anthony Tolcher, CEO and founder of NEXT Oncology, says in a statement. “We proudly designed NEXT Oncology specifically to bring the best new agents to patients through our specially designed centers located around the world. This new relationship with Proxima CRO’s EPON will help us further enhance our mission and contribute to our life’s work of advancing cancer treatments to save more lives from cancer around the world.”

Proxima is a Houston-based contract research organization focused on supporting life science startups as they grow and scale. It was recently named to the the Inc. 5000 regional rankings for the Southwest for its fast-growing revenue.

The company launched its EPON in March to support Phase I and Phase II clinical oncology trials and a group of oncology-specific scientific experts. The Mary Crowley Cancer Research, a specialized clinical research center in Dallas, was one of the first to join the network.

"Finding the right clinical sites and investigators with the right patients is one of the biggest struggles of early phase clinical trials," Frnka says in a March statement. "Our Early Phase Oncology Network, which we're calling EPON, includes some of the most prominent investigators in early phase trials. Receiving expert feedback, insight, and guidance from this skilled scientific panel is critical to the success of these earliest phase trials."

In addition to work in the cancer field, Proxima also launched its M1 MedTech accelerator last year aimed at helping startups quickly grow their health tech businesses. Its inaugural cohort included startups with new tech and treatments for heart arrhythmias, ultrasounds, bioelectric implants in the body and more.

The company also recently expanded its footprint within the Texas Medical Center Innovation Factory.

InnovationMap spoke with Proxima CEO and Co-founder Kevin Coker on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kevin Coker of Proxima CRO, Gaurab Chakrabarti of Solugen, and Phil Sitter and Chris Chomenko of RepeatMD. Courtesy photos

4 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local innovators across industries — from marketing tech to synthetic biology — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Kevin Coker, CEO and co-founder of Proxima CRO, and Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen

First Bight VC named two Houstonians to its board. Photos courtesy

First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups founded by Veronica Wu in January, has named two new board members: Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen, and Kevin Cocker, co-founder and CEO of Proxima CRO.

"We are excited to announce the addition of Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti and Kevin Cocker," Wu says in a press release. "These two advisors are experts in their respective fields of medicine and biotechnology. They are proven leaders of Houston-based companies, which is key to our overall growth strategy, as we seek to establish Houston as a geographic center for innovation in Synthetic Biology." Click here to read more.

RepeatMD's CEO Phil Sitter and Vice President of Sales Chris Chomenko

RepeatMD's CEO Phil Sitter and Vice President of Sales Chris Chomenko join the Houston Innovators Podcast to explain how they are revolutionizing the aesthetics industry. Photos courtesy

Houston restaurateur pivoted his restaurant marketing business amid the pandemic — to a growing industry: aesthetics. Phil Sitter took the idea and tech he created with VIPInsiders to launch RepeatMD, a customizable marketing and fintech platform focused on the aesthetics industry, which includes plastic surgeons, dermatologists, etc.

Sitter, who serves as the company's CEO, says once he dived into learning about the industry, he found out these types of business are seeing incredible growth following the pandemic.

"They call it the 'Zoom boom' — everyone saw themselves on Zoom daily and decided to invest in themselves and their facial treatments." says Chris Chomenko, vice president of sales for the company, on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"And they had the time," Sitter adds. "When you think about aesthetic procedures — whether its invasive or non-invasive, it takes time for recovery." Click here to read more.

First Bight Ventures has added two Houstonians to its advisory board. Image via Getty Images

Houston-based synthetic biology investment fund taps 2 prominent advisers for board

on boarding

Earlier this year, a new synthetic biology-focused venture capital fund launched in Houston, and now its added to its esteemed set of advisers.

Veronica Wu, former Apple and Tesla exec, founded First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups, in January and named her initial board members. This month, she's added to those ranks with two Houstonians joining the advisory board — Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen, and Kevin Coker, co-founder and CEO of Proxima CRO.

"We are excited to announce the addition of Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti and Kevin Coker," Wu says in a press release. "These two advisors are experts in their respective fields of medicine and biotechnology. They are proven leaders of Houston-based companies, which is key to our overall growth strategy, as we seek to establish Houston as a geographic center for innovation in Synthetic Biology."

Gaurab co-founded Solugen, a Houston unicorn that creates enzymes that can turn sugar into chemicals, in 2016. He studied computational neuroscience at Brown University and received his master's and PhD in cancer biology and enzymology at the University of Texas.

Representing the health care side of synthetic biology, Kevin Coker runs Houston-based Proxima CRO, a regulatory and clinical partner for the emerging biotech and medical device industry. He is also the founder and partner of the M1 MedTech accelerator and the Host of the Inventing Tomorrow podcast.

"I couldn't be more excited to work with Veronica and First Bight Ventures," Coker says in the release. "The time is now for companies developing Synthetic Biology products and platforms. Much of this technology has reached commercial level maturity and we are beginning to see exciting things happen, particularly in Houston."

The two join six other advisers on the board:

  • Dr. Ethel Rubin, an experienced life sciences executive with commercialization and investment experience across multiple therapeutic areas and modalities.
  • Lekan Akinyanmi, founder and CEO of Cambridge Growth Partners, a holding company with interests in mining, finance, oil/gas, and renewable energy.
  • Dr. Guochun Liao, founder of IDbyDNA, which focuses on utilizing next-generation sequencing and AI/ML for infectious disease management.
  • Mario Maia, leader of the corporate investment arm of Novozymes.
  • Peter Oleksiak, former CFO senior vice president for DTE Energy Co., a Fortune 500 diversified energy compan.
  • Davy Wang, senior director at Oracle Cloud.
Here's what you missed at Houston House at SXSW. Photos courtesy

Podcast: Houston innovators discuss energy transition, diversity, and health tech at SXSW

Houston innovators podcast episode 125

SXSW has descended on Austin, and while the two-week conference and festival is still going strong, the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston-focused activation has wrapped for 2022.

Houston House, which first originated last year in digital form in 2021, took place Sunday, March 13, and Monday, March 14. The nine panels and two nights of networking covered topics from energy transition and med tech to diversity in venture capital and innovation in aerospace.

For SXSW badge holders, some of the Houston House discussions are available online. However if you’re not out and about at SX and you missed these incredible panels, I spoke to four Houstonians after their discussions to dig a little deeper into some key points from the panels.

Here are the Houston Innovators I spoke with at SXSW:

  • Denise Hamilton, CEO of WatchHerWork
  • Kevin Coker, president and CEO, Proxima
  • Grace Chan, investment associate at bp Ventures
  • Dale Winger, managing director of Halliburton Labs

Listen to these conversations below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes, which will return to interview-style conversations featuring Houston guests next Wednesday.

Proxima Clinical Research has its New Year's resolution and is ready to start working hands on with health tech startups. Graphic via proximacro.com

Houston organization plans to launch health tech accelerator in 2022

ready to grow

A contract research organization based in Houston has announced its new accelerator program aimed at helping startups quickly grow their health tech businesses.

Proxima Clinical Research released details of M1 MedTech, which expects to launch early next year. The CRO has raised funds to launch and invest in members of the inaugural cohort.

“Our goal is to move these companies substantially forward in a short amount of time,” says Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima, in a news release. “Proxima is in a unique position to leverage our experienced team of regulatory, quality, and clinical experts. We won’t be working at arm’s length from these companies. We will be a big part of what they do every day.”

The program will focus on a small group of companies and the Proxima team will provide hands-on support, including instruction, workshops, and one-on-one mentoring.

“This will be a unique experience for all parties involved, as Proxima is also a young, yet established, company that is now creating a program to assist companies at an earlier stage,” says Larry Lawson, co-founder of Proxima, in the release. “Our experience in the CRO realm and ability to provide coaching in clinical, regulatory, quality, and go-to-market strategies will only strengthen M1 MedTech’s ability to support the success of emerging companies and provide more life-saving technology to the public.”

Kevin Coker and Larry Lawson co-founded Proxima in 2017. Photos courtesy

The accelerator will target Class II and III medical devices for its initial cohort. In the future, Proxima plans to expand to include an even more extensive incubator focused solely on Class III devices, according to the release.

“M1 will be a place where startups can go to receive concrete resources to further their development. The participant success is our sole focus, and the ultimate goal is to have a substantial impact on the ideation-to-market process for Class II and Class III medical devices,” says Isabella Schmitt, director of regulatory affairs at Proxima and a principal at M1, in the release. “Proxima’s specific expertise alongside our M1 partners will provide resources for all key areas of a medical device entrepreneur’s journey to market and beyond.”

The M1 MedTech applications will open online in the spring.

“We don’t view M1 as competitive to other accelerators, rather we believe it will offer a different experience. Our team will strive to create a personalized program where companies have a dedicated touch point throughout the process,” says Sean Bittner, director of programs at M1 MedTech, in the release. “We will also provide specific, tailored connections and resources vetted by our team through professional partnerships, not just a general list of industry contacts.”

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Emily Cisek of The Postage, Kevin Coker of Proxima Clinical Research, and Sylvia Kampshoff of Kanthaka. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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


Emily Cisek, founder of The Postage

The Postage — a Houston-based company that's streamlining afterlife planning — has rolled out a new app. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Emily Cisek had a mission when she founded The Postage. She wanted to make afterlife planning simpler — and she's taken one giant step toward that goal with the company's new app.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple."

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app. Click here to read more.

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, say his company transform from uncertainty to almost uncontrollable growth in just 12 months. He shares what happened on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Proxima

After a huge dip in business due to the pandemic, a Houston company focused on supporting innovative life science companies saw 12 months of unprecedented growth. Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, says that's not only a good sign for the future of his business — but also of the future of Houston's life science sector.

"We're a good barometer for what's happening not only locally but across the country," Coker says. "As Proxima has grown, it's really show how the Houston life science market is growing."

Coker shares more about Proxima's growth and Houston's potential of being a major life science hub on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Sylvia Kampshoff, founder of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has launched Kanthaka's first crowdfunding campaign. Photo courtesy of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has lofty goals for her company Kanthaka, a platform for connecting users to personal trainers across over a dozen cities. With the launch of a new $1 million crowdfunding raise, Kampshoff is one step closer to growing her business according to these goals.

"Our vision is to become Amazon for health & fitness and the go-to provider to live a longer, happier and healthier life," Kampshoff says. "We couldn't be more excited about this journey." Click here to read more.

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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.