3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Amy Chronis of Deloitte, James Reinstein of Saranas, and Tatiana Fofanova of Koda Health. 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 energy to health tech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Amy Chronis, Houston managing partner of Deloitte LLP

The Houston location is one of six Greenhouses in the U.S. and one of 40 around the world. Photo courtesy Deloitte/AlexandersPortraits.com

Co-located with the company's downtown Houston headquarters, the 14,000-square-foot Deloitte Greenhouse is intended to help executives plant and foster new ways of thinking, working, and experimenting in the energy industry.

Amy Chronis, Houston managing partner, at Deloitte LLP, says that as the energy capital of the world, Houston is an ideal location for one of six Greenhouses in the U.S. and one of 40 around the world.

"The oil and gas industry is at a crossroads where business transformation is no longer an option," says Chronis. "We are providing a controlled, safe environment for companies to experiment and test various workforce, technology and market scenarios to help them right-size and future-proof their businesses in this rapidly changing landscape." Click here to read more.

James Reinstein, president and CEO of Saranas

James Reinstein joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss what's next for growing medical device company, Saranas. Photo courtesy

When James Reinstein took the helm of Houston-based Saranas in March 2020, he was tasked with taking the medical device company through its series B funding round and into larger clinical trials. Navigating these tasks during a global pandemic wasn't part of the plan.

"There was just so much uncertainty," Reinstein says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "All of the funds didn't know which end was up, what hospitals would be doing, what procedures were going to begin again."

Saranas received FDA approval and began its clinical trials for its Early Bird Bleed Monitoring System in 2019. The device is designed to detect and track bleeding complications related to endovascular procedures. These medical procedures treat problems, such as aneurysms, that affect blood vessels. Around 20 percent of patients suffer a bleeding complication during endovascular procedures. Click here to read more.

Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda Health

Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning. Image via LinkedIn

Founded by Tatiana Fofanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry, Koda Health uses AI to help patients create advance medical care directives and documents—such as a living will—through an easy to use web-based interface.

The app then autogenerates legal and medical documents, which patients can notarize or electronically witness the forms through the app or on their own.

According to Fofanova, who earned her PhD in in Molecular Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and now acts as the company's CEO, what historically has been a time consuming and expensive process, through Koda Health, takes an average of 17 minutes and is completely free of charge to the end user.

"We hope to reduce any outstanding barriers to access that might exist," Fofanova says. "It is very frequently the oldest and the poorest that are the highest utilizers of health care that don't have access to these solutions." Click here to read more.

Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning. Image via kodahealthcare.com

Houston health tech startup using AI in palliative care scores $256,000 grant to test its product

Med tech moves

A new Houston-based digital advanced care planning company is streamlining some of the most difficult conversations in the health care industry around palliative care.

Founded by Tatiana Fofanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry, Koda Health uses AI to help patients create advance medical care directives and documents—such as a living will—through an easy to use web-based interface.

Koda Health uses a conversational platform where users can enter information about their values, living situations, quality of life wishes, and more while learning about different care options at their own speed. It also uses a proprietary machine learning approach that personalizes audio-video guided dialogue based on the patient's individual and cultural preferences.

The app then autogenerates legal and medical documents, which patients can notarize or electronically witness the forms through the app or on their own.

According to Fofanova, who earned her PhD in in Molecular Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and now acts as the company's CEO, what historically has been a time consuming and expensive process, through Koda Health, takes an average of 17 minutes and is completely free of charge to the end user.

"We hope to reduce any outstanding barriers to access that might exist," Fofanova says. "It is very frequently the oldest and the poorest that are the highest utilizers of health care that don't have access to these solutions."

The app is also projected to save health care systems roughly $9,500 per patient per year, as it allows for hospitals and organizations to better plan for what their patient population is seeking in end-of-life-care.

The B2B platform was born out of the TMC's Biodesign Fellowship, which tasked Koda's founding members with finding solutions to issues surrounding geriatric care in the medical center. In March 2020, Koda incorporated. Not long after ICU beds began to fill with COVID-19 patients, "galvanizing" the team's mission, Fofanova says.

"It was no longer this conceptual thing that we needed to address and write a report on. Now it was that people were winding up in the hospital at alarming rates and none of those individuals had advanced care planning in place," she says.

After accelerating the development of the product, Koda Health is now being used by health care systems in Houston, Texas, and Virginia.

The company recently received a Phase I grant of $256,000 from the National Science Foundation, which will allow Koda to deploy the platform at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and test it against phone conversations with 900 patients. Fofanova says the company will also use the funds to continue to develop personalization algorithms to improve Kona's interface for users.

"We want to make this a platform that mimics a high quality conversation," she says.

After Koda completes the Phase I pilot program it will then be eligible to apply for a Phase II award of up to $1 million in about a year.

Koda Health was founded by Tatiana Fofanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry. Photos via kodahealthcare.com

Here's what Houston startups won prizes at the inaugural Venture Houston conference. Photo via Getty Images

Inaugural Houston Venture startup pitch competition names big winners and doles out nearly $1M

taking home the W

Just a few months ago, Venture Houston 2021 was just an idea. Now, the two-day conference concluded with over 2,500 registrants and doled out nearly $1 million in cash and investment prizes to startups.

The idea was to bring together startups, investors, corporations, and anyone who cares to advance the Houston tech ecosystem, says Sandy Guitar, managing director at HX Venture Fund, at the closing event. The conference, which was put on by HXVF, the Houston Angel Network, the Rice Alliance, and Houston Exponential, wrapped up with the announcement of nine startups taking home investment or cash prizes.

In its first year, the Venture Houston conference attracted over 266 startup applications, and a group of Houston innovation leaders named 30 semifinalists that pitched on Thursday, February 4. On Friday, February 5, seven finalists pitched:

  • Koda Health
  • Spark Biomedical Inc
  • PATH EX, Inc.
  • Conversifi
  • CellChorus
  • MacroFab, Inc.
  • Mainline

The top three startups in the competition took home cash prizes — Macrofab won first place and $15,000 from Halliburton Labs, Spark Biomedical won second place and $10,000 from Softeq, and PathEx won third place and $5,000 from ChampionX.

  • Work & Mother won $250,000 from The Artemis Fund
  • MacroFab won $250,000 — $100,000 from Mercury Fund and $150,000 from Carnrite Ventures
  • Conversifi won $200,000 — $100,000 from Next Coast Ventures and $100,000 from Live Oak Venture Partners
  • Koda Health won $50,000 from Houston Angel Network
  • CellChorus won $50,000 from Texas Halo Fund
  • Nesh won $50,000 from Plug and Play
  • Cemvita Factory won $25,000 from baMa

Two previously announced prizes — $500,000 from Fitz Gate Ventures and $250,000 from Montrose Lane — were not given out.

The Venture Houston organizers are already looking forward to next year's program, but in the meantime Guitar had a parting call to action.

"Keep helping your fellow entrepreneur," she says, "that's really what Venture Houston 2021 is really about at the end of the day. The entrepreneur journey is a difficult one — often a lonely one — and sometimes one of hard knocks. Please keep finding entrepreneurs within your ecosystem. Let's help them with our advice, our capital, and our understanding."

Here's which life science companies — in Houston and beyond — are ones to watch. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston organization names 10 most promising life sciences startups

ones to watch

Last week, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship gathered over 1,000 life science experts and attendees virtually for thought leadership as well as 40 company presentations.

The three-day 2020 Virtual Texas Life Science Forum was made possible through a partnership with BioHouston and support from Texas Medical Center and Insperity. At the close of the summit, several companies were recognized with awards.

Houston-based Starling Medical won the Michael E. DeBakey Memorial Life Science Award, established by BioHouston in honor of the groundbreaking Houston cardiovascular surgeon. The digital health device company is revolutionizing severe bladder dysfunction management with artificial intelligence.

Every year at the forum, the Rice Alliance names its 10 most promising companies working on developing innovative solutions in medical devices, digital health, diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, and therapeutics. This year, Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, says they had more applications to present than ever before. Additionally, the presenting companies — about half of which are Houston-based — have already raised more than $275 million in funding.

The 2020 most-promising life science companies, which were chosen by investors and presented by the Greater Houston Partnership, were:

Droice Labs

Image via droicelabs.com

New York-based Droice Labs, is an artificial intelligence and big data company matches patients to therapies and delivers personalized medicine at scale while reducing costs.

"Our cutting-edge technology seamlessly integrates into clinical workflows, and we continue to evolve unique and powerful applications for our clients and the patients they serve," reads the company's website.

SFA Therapeutics

Image via sfatherapeutics.com

Based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, SFA Therapeutics is developing oral drugs for treating conditions of chronic inflammation that have the potential to change the practice of medicine. The company has treatments for Psoriasis, Liver Cancer (Hepatitis B, NASH and HCC), Ophthalmic Diseases, Cytokine Release Syndrome- a side effect in CAR-T, Prevention of Relapse/Recurrence in Leukemias, and other diseases.

Hummingbird Bioscience

Photo via jlabs.jnjinnovation.com

Hummingbird Bioscience, based in Houston's JLABS @ TMC, is tackling challenging targets that play a key role in disease yet have not been effectively drugged. The company has worked on 12 therapies in various stages of development, four of which have the potential to revolutionize their fields.

"At Hummingbird, we believe that modern approaches to systems biology and data science can overcome the challenges of classical methods of therapeutics discovery, and profoundly improve the way we deliver new transformative medicines," reads the company website.

CaseCTRL

Image via casectrl.com

Houston-based CaseCTRL is empowering surgeons with a management platform with software-as-a-service technology that uses AI and logistics to lower operational costs and simplify surgical planning.

"The surgical scheduling process is frustratingly stuck in the past: siloed, paper-based, and too dependent on single schedulers," reads the website. "Surgeons are stressed and overworked. They need a better way to communicate their complex surgical plans, timelines and resource needs."

Perimeter Medical

Image via perimetermed.com

Perimeter Medical, based in Dallas, is driven to transform cancer surgery with advanced, real-time, ultra high-resolution imaging tools including AI to address areas of unmet medical need.

"Perimeter is dedicated to providing solutions that drive better patient care and lower healthcare costs by providing critical information, during clinical procedures," reads the website.

Studio Bahria

Image via studiobahia.org

San Antonio-based Studio Bahia, is developing an accessible model for therapy in addressing mental health crises from the pandemic through virtual reality.

"We are in production of our first two therapies for release in the 4th quarter of 2020. Studio Bahia clients include corporate, retail, and institutional partners who purchase our headsets for $25 in providing mental health therapies and wellness tools to employees, executives, and patients," reads the company's website.

Tvardi Therapeutics

Photo via Getty Images

Tvardi Therapeutics, based in Houston, is a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company focused on the development of a new class of breakthrough medicines for diverse cancers and chronic inflammatory and fibrotic diseases.

"Tvardi is focused on the development of orally delivered, small molecule inhibitors of STAT3, a key signaling molecule positioned at the intersection of many disease pathways," reads the website.

Koda Health

Image via kodahealthcare.com

Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning.

"You're entitled to protect the healthcare decisions that matter most to you and your family," the company's website promises. "Koda creates Care Plans to ensure that you get the medical care you want."

Immuno Genesis

Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based ImmunoGenesis is a clinical-stage biotechnology company developing therapeutics to catalyze effective immune responses in immunologically "cold" cancers such as prostate, colorectal, and pancreatic.

"Compared to existing immunotherapy drugs, we believe this antibody will both provide more consistent benefit for patients with immune-infiltrated tumors, and, for the first time, will also benefit patients with immune 'cold' cancers," says founder Dr. Michael A. Curran in a press release announcing the company's grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Ictero Medical

Image via Getty Images

Ictero Medical, based in Houston, is developing the first minimally invasive cryoablation solution to treat patients with gallstone disease. Ictero Medical has created a minimally invasive treatment, called The CholeSafe System, that uses cryoablation to defunctionize the gallbladder without having to remove it.

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Report: Texas is home to a not-so happy workforce

by the numbers

Call it the Bayou City Blues. A report from job website Lensa ranks Houston third among the U.S. cities with the unhappiest workers.

The report looks at four factors — vacation days taken, hours worked per week, average pay, and overall happiness — to determine the happiest and unhappiest cities for U.S. workers.

Lensa examined data for 30 major cities, including Dallas and San Antonio. Dallas appears at the top of the list of the cities with the unhappiest workers, and San Antonio lands at No. 8.

Minneapolis ranks first among the cities with the happiest workers.

Here's how Houston fared in the four ranking categories:

  • 16.6 million unused vacation days per year.
  • 40.1 average hours worked per week.
  • Median annual pay of $32,251.
  • Happiness score of out of 50.83.

Dallas had 19.4 million unused vacation days per year, 40.5 average hours worked per week, median annual pay of $34,479, and a happiness score of 53.3 out of 100.

Meanwhile, San Antonio had 5.7 million unused vacation days per year, 39.2 average hours worked per week, median annual pay of $25,894, and a happiness score of 48.61.

Texas tops Lensa's list of the states with the unhappiest workers.

"While the Lone Star State had a decent happiness score of 52.56 out of 100, it scored poorly on each of the other factors, with Texans allowing an incredible 67.1 million earned vacation days go to waste over the course of a year," Lensa says.

In terms of general happiness, Houston shows up at No. 123 on WalletHub's most recent list of the happiest U.S. cities. Dallas takes the No. 104 spot, and San Antonio lands at No. 141. Fremont, California, grabs the No. 1 ranking.

Rice rises to top of new ranking of Texas colleges and universities

hoot there it is

If Texas had one Ivy League school, it would have to be Rice University.

Time after time, the Houston school ranks as the best college or university in Texas and one of the best in the country. Personal finance website WalletHub just added to Rice's accolades with a No. 1 ranking in Texas and a No. 6 ranking nationally among colleges and universities.

In Texas, Rice appears at No. 1 for admission rate, graduation rate, gender and racial diversity, and post-school median salary. Not every ranking is that stellar, though. Rice ranks 50th for on-campus crime among 55 Texas schools and 52nd for net cost.

More students soon will be able to take advantage of Rice's top-tier education. In March, the school said it would enlarge its undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent — to 4,800 — by the fall of 2025, up from more than 4,200 in the fall of 2020.

In a news release, Robert Ladd, chairman of the Rice Board of Trustees, called expansion of the student body "a strategic imperative."

"Expanding the student body now will also expand Rice's future alumni base across the nation and around the world," he added. "Welcoming more students to the Rice campus today will have an impact on the university for generations to come."

Elsewhere on the WalletHub list, the University of Houston lands at No. 10 within Texas and No. 238 in the country.

To determine the top-performing schools, WalletHub compared more than 1,000 institutions in the U.S. across 30 key measures, including student-to-faculty ratio, graduation rate, and post-school median salary.

Here are the top 15 colleges and universities in Texas, according to WalletHub, along with their national rankings:

  1. Rice University, No. 6 nationally.
  2. University of Texas at Austin, No. 45 nationally.
  3. Trinity University in San Antonio, No. 61 nationally.
  4. Texas A&M University in College Station, No. 127 nationally.
  5. Southwestern University in Georgetown, No. 144 nationally.
  6. University of Dallas, No. 152 nationally.
  7. Southern Methodist University in University Park, No. 178 nationally.
  8. Austin College in Sherman, No. 192 nationally.
  9. LeTourneau University in Longview, No. 231 nationally.
  10. University of Houston, No. 238 nationally.
  11. University of Texas at Dallas, No. 252 nationally.
  12. Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, No. 253 nationally.
  13. Baylor University in Waco, No. 357 nationally.
  14. Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, No. 375 nationally.
  15. Southwest Adventist University in Keene, No. 407 nationally.
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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

With $150M in VC raise, this Houston company is re-envisioning the future of e-commerce operations

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 106

If you're operating a business that sells a product online, you have several options for software to support your efforts and needs as a merchant. However, as one group of Houston entrepreneurs realized, there wasn't a streamlined, one-stop-shop for e-commerce software. That is until Cart.com launched just over a year ago.

And it's been a busy year. The startup is led by CEO Omair Tariq, Chief Commercial Officer Remington Tonar, who previously served in a few leadership roles at The Cannon, and a several other co-founders and C-level execs. Following strategic growth and several acquisitions, the Houston e-commerce software provider now employs over 300 people and has raised around $150 million in venture capital. The suite of software services includes everything a company needs — from managing a storefront to collecting important data and metrics.

"Our platform is really geared toward ambitious companies that have their foot in the door, have sales, and have product-market fit, and now need to level up," says Tonar on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "E-commerce as an industry is highly fragmented — you have so many players, but they don't play well together. Through our end-to-end offering, we are bringing all these things together."

Described as a competitor to Amazon, Cart.com connects the dots for e-commerce companies, and, in fact, works alongside Amazon, too. While Cart.com clients can use the suite of software services to create their own shop, ship out of Cart.com's distribution centers, etc., they can also list their products on Amazon too.

"I like to view Amazon as co-op-etition. We can coexist with Amazon," Tonar says. "We're not antithetical to Amazon. We're not mutually exclusive. We can work with folks who are selling on Amazon to build their direct-to-consumer business, and we are doing that today."

And business are indeed looking for that help, Tonar says on the show. He describes the marketplace as a bit of a monopoly between Amazon, Walmart, and some other players that are essentially squeezing out small or even mid-market companies that can't compete with these larger companies. Walmart and Amazon have the scale necessary to control the end-to-end marketplace, and very few companies have that, Tonar explains.

"Now Cart.com has done the hard work and spent the money to go out and aggregate all of these capabilities. The difference is, we aren't hoarding them. We're offering them as services," he says.

Heading into the holidays, where potential new clients will be focusing on delivering on orders and sales, Cart.com is expecting a busy 2022 in terms of growth. In a lot of ways, the COVID-19 pandemic played a major role in the development of e-commerce and, by extension, Cart.com.

"The pandemic has played a role in overall accelerating the growth of ecommerce as a category and an industry. That growth was going to happen anyways, but it made it more ubiquitous faster," Tonar says. "It's just commerce now. This is just how people purchase and consume things."

Tonar discusses what else you can expect to see from Cart.com in terms of growth, more fundraising, and more. He also shares how he's observed the Houston innovation ecosystem grow over his years in the business. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.