The Digital Fight Club made its Houston debut on November 20 at White Oak Music Hall. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

What do you get when you cross the information of an innovation panel with the ferocity of a boxing match? A verbal sprawling among innovation leaders that can only be known as the Digital Fight Club.

Houston's DFC came about with the help of Accenture, which had been a partner at the Dallas events, and InnovationMap, who teamed up as presenting sponsors for the event. DFC's founder, Michael Pratt, came up with the idea for Digital Fight Club as a way to liven up technology-focused events and networking opportunities.

The setup of the event is five fights, 10 fighters, and five judges. Each fighter has just a couple minutes to take their stand before the event moves on.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

The hour of fighting is coupled with a VIP event ahead of the showdown and an after party where further networking can continue on. At Houston's VIP event, InnovationMap got to check in with partners, fighters, and referees about how they thought the event was going to pan out. Check out the VIP event video here.

The panel of referees included Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston; Denise Hamilton, CEO of Watch Her Work; Tim Kopra, partner at Blue Bear Capital; Lance Black, Director at TMCx; and Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures.

The refs asked two questions per fight, and were able to vote on the winners of each round — as was the audience through an interactive web-based application. The break down of the fights, topics, and winners are as follows:

Fight #1: Future Workforce of Robotics/AI. Matt Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems, vs Pablo Marin, senior AI Leader, Microsoft. Hager took the win with 77 percent of the vote.
Fight #2: Whose responsibility is cybersecurity. Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate vs Tara Khanna, managing director and Security Lead at Accenture. Khanna won this round, snagging 66 percent of the votes.
Fight #3: Oil & Gas Industry and the Environment. Michael Szafron - commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, vs Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone. Szafron received 76 percent of the voites, securing the win.
Fight #4: Digital in our personal lives. Grace Rodriguez, CEO of ImpactHub, vs Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs. Rodriguez won with the largest margin of the night — 85 percent.
Fight #5: Future of Primary Care Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, vs Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist. Goyal received 72 percent of the votes to take home the win.

The fights were heated, and some of the fighters had knockout quotes, from Hager's "AI is mostly bullshit" to Khanna's "Compliance doesn't mean you're secure." For more of the knockout quotes, click here.

The fight is on

Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Mike Pratt, who hosted the event, founded the Digital Fight Club in 2016.

At TMCx's Demo Day, the cohort's companies boasted of local deals and accomplishments. Courtesy of TMC

TMCx companies plant Houston roots with pilots, partnerships, and more

Lasting impact

At the conclusion of TMCx's recent Digital Health cohort — the most international group to date — there was only one Houston company among the 19. However, most of that group have developed a presence in Houston throughout the program.

Besides just being based here in Houston for four months, TMCx associate director, Lance Black, says the city has a lot to offer these startups.

"Why Houston? Why are these companies coming from everywhere to be here? Three big reasons," he says to the crowd at Demo Day. "The size and scale of the Texas Medical Center, the diversity of Houston, and the willingness and hunger of Houstonians wanting to be involved in innovation."

From pilots and partnerships to funding and mentorship, these TMCx08 companies announced the impact they've made on Houston at the Demo Day on Thursday, June 6. Meanwhile, TMCx had its own announcement that it would create early stage programming for professionals connected to the Texas Medical Center.

"It is the TMC's mission to advance health care, research, and education. It's our mission at the Innovation Institute to bring value back to the med center through health care technology," Black says. "And, through TMCx, we do that through startup companies."

Here are some examples of TMCx companies setting foundations in the Houston ecosystem.

Virti

Photo via virti.com

California-based Virti has developed an extended reality simulation technology for training medical staff. It's a cheaper, more effective way to train personnel, says Alex Young, CEO of the company.

Virti was selected to be in England's National Health Service accelerator — the only evidence-based AR/VR training company ever to be picked for the program, says Young.

With a presence in California and England, Young says he's also planted roots in Texas too, with sales representation based in the TMCx offices.

"In the time that we've been here, we've closed deals in Texas and back in California," Young adds.

Optellum

Photo via optellum.com

Optellum is changing the way lung cancer is being detected. With the startup's artificial intelligence-enabled detection software, oncologists can better identify at-risk patients, which translates into more treatment for those in need, and less for those who don't.

The company, which is based in the United Kingdom, has raised funds abroad while networking locally.

"TMCx has been amazing for a small British company like us. We have started pilots and trials at four TMC member institutions," says Vaclav Potesil, CEO.

Oncora Medical

Photo via oncoramedical.com

Angela Holmes, the director of product and customer solutions of Oncora Medical, sets the stage at her company's Demo Day pitch by telling a story of her friend's daughter who was diagnosed with cancer. She was forced to pick between two treatment options. She had no data or insights to help.

Oncora Medical's mission is to help fight cancer using data. Though based in Philadelphia, Oncora has Houston ties, since it formed a partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center in April of 2017.

"We are so honored and gratified to be in a strategic, multi-year collaboration with MD Anderson to build this software system to save the world," Holmes says.

PreOp MD

Cody Duty/TMC

Within health care, the projected annual aggregate surgical expenditure by 2025 is expected to be $912 billion, says Christiana Obi, founder and CEO of PreOp MD, and a Houston-based anesthesiologist. She sees lack of information causing wasted surgical resources regularly.

PreOp MD — the only Houston-based TMCx company this cohort — has an app that allows for pre-procedure education, communication, and more that aims to prevent surgical delays.

While based here, PreOp is truly rooted in Houston, and even more so with their latest news.

"We are happy and excited to say that we have landed our first medical pilot at an medical right here in town," Obi says.

RoundTrip

Cody Duty/TMC

RoundTrip has a solution to 3.6 million missed or postponed medical visits that happen annually that are inconvenient to hospitals and a major health risk to the population: Ride sharing.

The Philadelphia-based company enables all forms of transportation and puts the power in the hands of the medical institution. From ambulances to other medical vehicles, the company can optimize utilization of all vehicles to get patients to their appointments and even has a partnership with Lyft.

While completing the TMCx program, RoundTrip closed its Series A round of $5.14 million led by Virginia-based Motley Fool Ventures in April. The funds will be used for expansion.

"Now we have all this new money to expand really rapidly. Texas, we're coming for you, whether you're ready or not," says Jackson Steeger, account supervisor.

Meru Health

Photos via meruhealth.com

Meru Health is also one of the 2019 TMCx Digital Health companies that has raised money while in the program. Palo Alto, California-based Meru completed a $4.2M raise in April 2019. The round was led by San Francisco-based Freestyle Capital.

Access to mental health professionals is increasingly more difficult, so Meru Health has created a low-cost digital clinic that offers an app-based treatment program from licensed therapists. Kristian Ranta, CEO and founder, while not yet providing specifics, that they aren't done in Texas.

"I'm happy to say there's some good stuff brewing here in Texas for us. More to follow," says Ranta.

Cloud 9

Photo via cloud9psych.com

Mental health is a key contributing factor in the legal system cycle, but it doesn't have to be Liz Truong, co-founder of Cloud 9. Better educating officers and providing them with mental health resources is the best way to get them out of the hospitals and court rooms and back out in the field to protect the city.

While some police departments have instituted ride-along programs with mental health professionals that have showed success, it's expensive for the police department and risky for those professionals. Cloud 9 has created a digital solution.

"We proved this works in the Harris County Sheriff's office right here in Houston," says Truong. "Officers reported that 97 percent of Cloud 9 care was superior or equal to their current program and showed an immediate 632 percent return on investment for our customers in the same budget cycle compared to what they were already spending."

Truong also says they have other local customers they are working with, including the Harris County Health Department.

Axem Neurotechnology

Photos via axemneuro.com

Recovering stroke patients need rehabilitation to get back to 100 percent, but getting patients into the facility is challenging and at-home compliance is hard to track.

Canadian company Axem Neurotechnology has a solution. With their external device and mobile application, physical therapists can track progress and communicate with patients remotely.

"When we talk to rehab professionals, they are excited about what we're doing," says Tony Ingram, CEO and co-founder. "That's why we have leading institutions in both Canada and the U.S. onboard for clinical trials — this includes TMC's own TIRR, which is consistently ranked in the top five rehab centers in the U.S. We're collecting core baseline data in the most diverse city in the country."


Correction: A previous version of this article said Oncora's partnership with MD Anderson was formed during the TMCx program, when the partnership began in 2017.

TMCx is introducing a new opportunity for early stage health tech ideas. Courtesy of TMCx

TMC Innovation Institute introduces new early stage programming opportunities for health care workers

Alpha ideas

While the Texas Medical Center's accelerator, TMCx, accepts two cohorts of health care startups a year at various stages of development, the program isn't optimized for early stage ideas for companies.

Yet for years, the TMC Innovation Institute team has fielded questions from budding entrepreneurs over cold emails — and even LinkedIn.

TMC will launch a new program for these early stage ideas called TMCalpha. Lance Black, associate director of TMCx, announced the program at TMCx's Demo Day on Thursday, June 6.

"Alpha is the first letter in the Greek alphabet. It represents the beginning — the first step in your journey," Black says.

Through monthly events, TMC-affiliated entrepreneurs can meet with the TMCx team, learn startup best practices, pitch to professionals, and receive one-on-one advice.

"It's our mission to support those members in the TMC — those employees, those physicians, those affiliates — that are knee-deep in the problems and have ideas for solutions," he adds.

The details of the program have yet to be revealed, and Black suggested interested parties subscribe to their newsletter.

"Too many good ideas go undeveloped because people don't have a place to turn or know who to talk to," Black says. "Now they do."

Before and after the announcement, 19 different startups pitched to the crowd at the TMC Innovation Institute, representing the end of the accelerator program. The 2019 Digital Health cohort represented the eighth — and most international — cohort within the program.

Three companies within the cohort have announced completed raises totaling over $10 million. However, according to the pitches, that figure is likely even higher.

Tom Luby will run the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. Courtesy of TMC

TMC names former JLABS leader as the director of the Innovation Institute

taking control

The Texas Medical Center didn't have to go very far to find its new Innovation Institute director. Tom Luby, who most recently served as the site head for Johnson & Johnson Innovation's JLABS @ TMC, has been hired for the position.

"I am very excited to begin the next chapter in my journey at TMC Innovation," Luby says in a release. "My time at JLABS @ TMC has shown me the tremendous opportunity there is to work with a host of talented people and companies here in Houston. Now, I'm ready to expand my role and help take TMC Innovation as a collective unit to the next level."

Luby replaces Erik Halvorsen, who left abruptly in December. According to LinkedIn, Halvorsen is now the chief business and strategy officer for Houston-based FAR Biotech, for which he previously served on the board of directors. Lance Black, associate director at TMCx, served as the director in the interim for the past few months.

Prior to JLABS, Luby was in Boston at Johnson & Johnson and served as the new ventures lead. He has 14 years of research and design experience in the Boston area.

TMC as an organization has a lot up its sleeves, says President and CEO Bill McKeon in a release, and he trusts Luby to take the lead on innovation.

"With major developments in 2018, including the announcement of the forthcoming TMC3 translational research campus, Texas Medical Center is now on the fast track to becoming the third coast for life sciences, and TMC Innovation is a critical component in the ultimate realization of this goal," says McKeon. "Tom Luby is an outstanding individual, and his proven track record working with startups in Boston and within the walls of JLABS @ TMC will serve him well as he leads us through the next evolutionary phase of the TMC Innovation Institute."

Luby will oversee the med center's accelerator program, TMCx, which is currently in the midst of its eighth cohort.

Houston has just been named an emerging life sciences hub by CBRE. The recognition took job growth and lab space into consideration for the ranking.

TMCx's eighth cohort started Monday. Of the 21 companies, 10 are international and two are from Texas. Courtesy of TMCx

5 things to know about TMCx's newest cohort

X marks the spot

On Monday, 21 startups settled in for a wild, four-month ride at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute, and TMCx's eighth cohort, which is focused on digital health, is officially ongoing.

The companies will be absorbing the curriculum and guidance from TMCx and its partners for the next four months, and this particular cohort is exciting for Lance Black, associate director at TMCx, for a few reasons.

"I'm really honored to be able to support these startup companies because, in my mind, it's this entrepreneur spirit that's going to change health care for the better," says Black.

From where the startups are from to where they're going, here's what you need to know about TMCx's eighth cohort.

Digital health companies are defined as those with a software component. 

Each year, TMCx hosts two four-month cohorts — one focusing on medical device companies and the other on digital health. Last fall, TMCx concluded its medical device cohort, so its time to turn the focus on digital health, which Black says TMCx defines as companies with a software element to their product.

The 21 companies in X8 focus on a myriad of medical issues — neurology, mental health, and oncology — as well as logistical applications — patient experience, hospital efficiency, process improvement, clinical decision support, and more.

Black says one type of cohort isn't harder than the other, but the process and curriculum is different. Medical device companies need to have an established prototype, which can take a while. Meanwhile, a digital health company can turn around an app in a matter of weeks.

It might be a bit of a gray area as to what all falls under digital health, but one thing's for sure — TMC is a great opportunity for the companies.

"Overall, our digital health companies do really well in the Texas Medical Center because there's a lot of large hospital systems that are eager and hungry to improve their processes in a number of ways," Black says. "So, we've seen digital health get picked up quickly."

It's the accelerator's most international cohort.

Black says his team evaluated hundreds of startups and, of the 150 companies, 70 were interviewed before getting pared down to 21. What was particularly surprising was the amount of international companies were interested. Ten of the cohort's startups are internationally based.

"What we really tried to do is put the blindfolds on for where they are from and what their background is and really look at the company and its technology, and pick the highest quality of the companies," Black says.

The countries represented are Canada, Australia, Israel, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.

"It shows not only what TMC has done but how Houston has come up in ranking as an international location for these companies," says Black. "For the majority of the 10, this is their first time in the U.S. They are looking at Houston as their entry to the U.S. market."

One Houston company made the cut.

Texas has two companies in the cohort — one from Austin and one from Houston.

Houston-based PreopMD makes the preoperative experience — for patients and clinicians — a whole lot easier. Improved patient communications and monitoring is the main goals of the company, and the website describes the technology as a "virtual operating room command center."

Austin-based Cloud 9 is on a mission to make mental health care more accessible to the population. According to their website, 20 percent of the population has mental health issues, but only 8 percent receive treatment. By engaging mental health care providers and making access to data and communication more available, Cloud 9 can help to fix the broken system.

There's a new guy in charge. 

After TMCx's former director, Erik Halvorsen, left his position in December, Black has stepped up to the plate as interim director to lead the cohort. The responsibilities are definitely different, Black says.

"As a strategist my focus was primarily the companies and being their point of contact," he says. "My day to day had a lot to do with communicating with the companies, and making sure they got the most out of the program. Now, in my current role, It's a little bit one step removed from that. I'm looking over the entire program and thinking about it strategically."

Black says that for him this means finding areas where the cohort can be improved or expanded.

It's the best time to be a TMCx company.

In the past few years, Black says the program has improved dramatically from the curriculum to the programing and what TMC has to offer its startups.

Now, the cohort has access to local talent through the intern program, fundraising events, the new Center of Device Innovation, and more.

"The more that we throw at them, the more they absorb and the better that they do," Black says. "So, we're always looking for ways to improve on their experience."


The TMC Innovation Institute has been tapped by the government to collaborate on illness-detecting technology. Courtesy of TMC

TMC receives grant to collaborate with a government agency to enhance illness-detecting technology

Teamwork

The Texas Medical Center has been identified as a key partner for a national health-focused initiative. TMCx has been selected as one of eight accelerator programs to be a part of the program that focuses on identifying emerging health security threats, according to a release from TMC.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services has provided TMCx a $96,500 to conduct research and provide solutions for two different challenges within mitigating these risks.

"The first is 'pre-symptomatic' detection of illness, or detecting illness in patients and suggesting treatment before they even begin to show symptoms," the release reads. "The second is addressing sepsis, a life-threatening reaction to infection."

Sepsis, which is one of the most costly illnesses hospitals treat, affects 1.7 million patients a year.

HHS' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, has a new entity called DRIVe, which stands for Division of Research, Innovation, and Ventures. The effort will be lead by the new organization, which comes at a result of the 21st Century Cures Act that was enacted to spur health security within technology.

In July, HHS officials toured the TMC Innovation Institute campus before deciding to work with the accelerator. TMCx is no stranger to the national spotlight. In November, the organization was lauded for its accelerator program with a national award.

The accelerator has announced its eighth cohort of startups this spring. The 21 companies will be focused on digital health. Last cohort, TMCx accelerated 23 companies that raised $73 million by demo day.

In December, Erik Halvorsen, who had lead the Innovation Institute for a few years, abruptly left his position as director. Lance Black, associate director of TMCx, has been named the interim director.

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Overheard: Houston execs weigh in on the innovation ecosystem and local startups

Eavesdropping in Houston

Something has shifted in Houston, and businesses across industries — whether it be real estate, health care, or energy — are focused on innovation, emerging technologies, and the role of startups within the business community.

At the Greater Houston Partnership's annual Economic Outlook on December 5, three panelists from various industries gathered to discuss some of the biggest issues in Houston — from the multifamily real estate market to what the local workforce needs. The panel was moderated by Eddie Robinson, the morning news anchor for Houston Public Radio, and the panelists did weigh in a few issues affecting innovation.

Missed the talk? Here are a few overheard moments from the discussion.

"Houston allows you to do what you do. And you don't get that in other places."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Bradley R. Freels, chairman of Midway Cos. Freels says, while the city's been overshadowed by other Texas cities for innovation and tech — and even by its large oil and gas industry presence, the city is becoming a great place for startups. "This is a great place to do business because it's easy to get started in business here. I think it's just over shadowed to some degree," he says, adding later that, "the initiative around the innovation corridor is real."

"Houston is unique, in my opinion, in how open and welcoming it is."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

— David Milich, CEO of UnitedHealthcare - Texas & Oklahoma. Building off the panelists point that Houston is a spirited, can-do city, Milich specifies that it's the collaboration between people in Houston that sets the city apart. "When we present ourselves with something to get done, we generally get it down."

"We're realizing that the economy is shifting. As we move forward in the 21st century, our entire workforce needs to be tech fluent."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Nataly Marks, managing director and region manager at JPMorgan Chase. When asked about jobs needed in Houston, Marks specified technology positions. Moreover, JPMorgan Chase is emphasizing getting the entire staff proficient in the latest tech resources.

New travel startup plans the perfect vacations for Houston's busy young professionals

GET THERE NOW

Work-life balance for a young professional is hard. There's the dream of travel but the nightmare of planning. Then there's the challenge of working with limited vacation days and finding a friend whose schedule lines up.

To the rescue comes Houston-based Here & Now Travel, which aims to create a vacation free of stress and full of memorable experiences and offers adventurous group travel specifically for young professionals.

When discussing the inspiration for starting their company, cofounder Alex Coleman tells CultureMap that he and his wife and fellow cofounder, Elise, were caught between the benefits and drawbacks of individual versus group travel.

They loved the freedom of solo traveling but not the potential feelings of isolation and vulnerability. When it came to traveling with friends, they enjoyed the bonding and security in a group but not all the work involved with navigating everyone's schedules and preferences during planning.

"We decided to create a travel company that combined the best of both worlds," Coleman says. "A company that gave people the flexibility of going to their desired destinations at their desired time, without losing the experience of traveling with a group of awesome people."

As young professionals themselves, the Colemans also wanted their company to consider the typically low number of vacation days their target clients have. That's why Here & Now trips take advantage of weekends and holidays so participants only have to take a maximum of three days off from work.

Here & Now Travel currently has six trips planned for 2020: two to Costa Rica, two to Colombia, and two to Mexico. On these trips, the itineraries lean towards adventure activities and cultural experiences.

For example, their next trip scheduled for January 9 to January 13 to Costa Rica includes exploring Juan Castro Blanco National Park, zip lining through the rainforest, learning how to make tortillas with a local family, and more.

"We shy away from crowded tourist attractions. We pride ourselves on showing travelers hidden gems of our destinations, be it the hidden Mayan cenote in Tulum where we have to be blessed by the community's Mayan Shaman before entering, or one of the region's largest waterfall in Costa Rica which sits on the land of a small farming family," says Coleman. "Through these tucked away, amazing places, we get to see things others typically don't, and have true interaction with the communities we are visiting.

Each Here & Now package includes private transportation to and from the airport and for the duration of the trip, shared three or four-star accommodation, all breakfasts and lunches, and all entrance fees and itinerary activity costs. Flights, dinners, and the required travel insurance are not included.

If you decide to join one of their trips, you can expect to be in a group of between six and 14 young professionals — with 14 being the absolute max as Here & Now Travel doesn't want to overrun the visited communities or contribute to the overuse of their resources.

"Large groups in charter buses feel clunky and seem like you are trampling or disrupting the destinations you are visiting," says Coleman. "We cap our trips at 14 people, allowing us to be good stewards of the communities we visit, and maintain our feel as a small group of travelers...and not tourists."

Each travel group is also accompanied by a Here & Now host who handles all the logistics as well as a local guide, which is a feature that Coleman believes sets their company apart from others.

"Travelers on Here & Now trips are always led by someone who calls that destination home," he explains. "Our guides have an emotional bond to the places we explore. Their passion and connection to their homes is something that can't be replicated."

Along with employing these local guides, Here & Now Travel works with local drivers, restaurants, and lodging as a way to ensure the money they spend in each community stays in that community.

As a further testament to their commitment to sustainable tourism, Here & Now Travel plans to offset their carbon footprint, which is mainly caused by airline travel, by donating to the nonprofit Trees for Houston in 2020.

The company also has plans to increase their number of trips to once per month and to eventually include European destinations.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.