The Texas Medical Center is buzzing with recent innovation news, from Texas A&M University naming its buildings, Houston Methodist is introducing a new technology, and more. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, Deloitte is looking for tech companies to honor, a few Houston innovators have fresh funds, buildings rising in the Texas Medical Center now have names, and more.

Texas A&M names buildings in Innovation Plaza

Texas A&M University has named the buildings that will be a part of its Innovation Plaza. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

The Texas A&M University System has revealed the names of the three buildings in the Texas A&M Innovation Plaza rising near the Texas Medical Center: Discovery Tower, Life Tower, and Horizon Tower.

Discovery Tower is the future home of A&M's EnMed program and is currently being renovated from an 18-story office building. Life Tower, which is expected to deliver in June 2022, is a 19-story, 714-bed student housing tower for Texas A&M medical students and Prairie View A&M University nursing students. Lastly, the Horizon Tower will be a 17-story, 485,000 square-foot integrated building that will feature a 13-story parking structure at the bottom.

SecurityGate closes series A

Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate, announced the closing of his company's series A. Courtesy of Security Gate

SecurityGate.io, a software-as-a-service cybersecurity startup based in Houston, has closed its series A fundraising round. Houston Ventures led the capital raise. The amount raised has not been disclosed.

"It was very attractive to us how tightly tuned SecurityGate.io is to the needs of their customers," says Chip Davis, managing partner at Houston Ventures, in a news release. "Successful enterprise software companies generally know they are instruments of change for their customers."

Davis says the feedback from SecurityGate's customers was what sealed the deal.

"Digital transformation is no easy task in highly dynamic environments, especially when the risk of cyberattacks keeps rising daily. We're excited to partner with Houston Ventures who sees this market growing, and our clients that see our vision of the future," says Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate, in the release.

Well Health launches at Houston Methodist

Thanks to tech from the West Coast, a Houston hospital has optimized virtual visits. Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

Through a partnership with California-based WELL Health Houston Methodist was able up the ante on virtual visits during the pandemic. According to a news release, WELL enabled Houston Methodist to deliver over 260,000 text messages to patients Houston Methodist. The messages educated them about virtual care, schedule visits, and more.

"The ability to communicate back and forth, assuring patients that we are here for them both virtually and in-person is crucial as we continue to safely provide care in the midst of this pandemic," says Tesha Montgomery, vice president of operations and patient access at Houston Methodist, in the release.

Houston podcast network raises over $1 million

A podcast network with Houston ties has raised a seed round. Pexels

Lemonada Media, a podcast network with Houston roots that launched in September, has raised $1.38 million in a seed funding round led by Blue Collective, an early-stage venture capital firm. The fresh funds will allow for strategic growth for the two co-founders, Jessica Cordova Kramer, CEO, and Houstonian Stephanie Wittels Wachs, chief creative officer. Lemonada also plans to hire several positions including vice presidents across finance, production, and marketing.

"We are slated to be a content and talent incubator, spinning out new audio concepts and hit series that present humanity, unfiltered," says Wittels Wachs in a news release. "Now more than ever, people are hungry for content that addresses their lived experience, those that are mundane, and those that may be painful and isolating. Because our company was built off a mountain of personal grief and loss, Lemonada is well-situated to cut through the noise, create beautiful works of art, and make people laugh and feel less alone along the way."

Deloitte is looking for tech companies for annual competition

For the 26th year, Deloitte is looking for cutting edge tech companies. Photo courtesy of Deloitte

Deloitte has opened applications for its 2020 Technology Fast 500. The application is available online and closes July 17. To be eligible for the award, the startup must be in business for a minimum of four years, have its headquarters in North America, have fiscal year 2016 operating revenues of at least $50,000, a fiscal year 2019 operating revenues of at least $5 million USD with a growth rate of 75 percent or greater, and own proprietary intellectual property or proprietary technology which must be sold to customers in products or services that contribute to a majority of the company's operating revenues, according to the contest's rules.

Companies should also fall within one of the following industry categories: biotechnology/pharmaceutical, communications/networking, digital content/media/entertainment, electronic devices/hardware, energy tech, medical devices, semiconductor, or software/SaaS.

Lazarus 3D delivers PPE to Haiti

A few Houston innovators have helped get Haitians critical PPE. Photo courtesy of Orolait

A few Houston innovators have helped connect health care workers in Haiti to some PPE. Ana Rojas Bastidas, founder of Orolait, and Jacques and Smriti Agrawal Zaneveld of Lazarus 3D, teamed up to ship over 1,000 pieces of PPE to United States Foundation for the Children of Haiti which supported orphanages, schools, and a hospital called Hopital Espoir.

In the middle of April, Bastidas saw the organization's need for PPE and saw how Lazarus 3D was creating materials. The group in Haiti received the supplies by the beginning of June.

"I'm really proud of the collaboration between myself and the Lazarus 3D team," Bastidas says. "Smriti and Jacques are absolute gems and while our businesses are completely separate, we found a common problem we both had the resources to tackle."

CryptoEQ begins offering consulting packages

Need custom cryptocurrency support? CryptoEQ is here to help. Courtesy of CryptoEQ

A cryptocurrency startup based in Houston has expanded its service to include custom-consulting packages.

"With our personalized packages, gain the market insights you need to refine your cryptocurrency investing and trading strategies," writes Spencer Randall, co-founder and principal of CryptoEQ.

The packages come at three levels: the enthusiast, the professional, and the expert. The individualized support begins at $499, and more information can be requested from the startup by emailing team@cryptoeq.io.

This week's innovators to know in Houston all have new and exciting things to announce. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Who are Houston's innovators to know? Well this week, here's who made headlines, from a well-known Houston software entrepreneur and investor rolling out a new line of business for his company to a new podcast network with Houston roots.

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of operations at The Ion

ION Accelerator ribbon cutting event, with Mayor Sylvester Turner and business partners.

Photo by Carter Smith/Station Houston

The entrepreneurial hub dubbed the Ion that's expected to premiere in Houston's innovation district in 2021 has a new operating organization and the Rice Management Company has tapped Station Houston CEO Gabriella Rowe to run it.

"To ensure that The Ion is a catalyst for the continued growth of the innovation ecosystem, we've been collaborating with Gaby and her team as well as civic leaders, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County commissioners and Midtown Houston," says Allison Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the RMC, in a news release. "We know that under Gaby's leadership The Ion will become an innovation hub for not only all Houstonians, but for anybody looking to thrive and collaborate in an entrepreneur-first, tech-forward environment." Read more.

Rakesh Agrawal, founder and CEO of SnapStream

Photo courtesy of SnapStream

Houston-based SnapStream has expanded its services, and CEO and Co-founder Rakesh Agrawal appears on the third episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his company's growth and the role he plays in the Houston innovation ecosystem.

"A lot of people go to this question of, 'What's wrong with the Houston ecosystem?' If there's anything that's a fundamental characteristic of Houston that we need to change that would really help the startup and innovation ecosystem is that often in Houston, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," Agrawal says on the podcast. Read more.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs, co-founder of Lemonada Media

Photo via Twitter

It's safe to say that Stephanie Wittels Wachs didn't have start and run a podcast network in her life's master plan. Nonetheless, the Houstonian can check that box after she launched Lemonada Media with her business partner, Jessica Cordova Kramer. The network is about creating provoking, uncensored content about life and humanity.

"This is everything I've done in my whole life," she tells InnovationMap. "It sort of combines my writing and my education background and my artistic background and some voiceover background and my activism. It's everything." Read more.

Lemonada, founded by Houstonian Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer, wants to air content that takes an unfiltered approach to life. Pexels

Houstonian launches her podcast network to talk about the tough stuff

unfiltered and on air

Even before Stephanie Wittels Wachs' Lemonada Media launched its first podcast on September 25, the network got a shout-out from none other than the New York Times, which listed its "Last Day" offering as one of seven new podcasts to listen to this fall.

The media company, which Wachs built with award-winning podcaster Jessica Cordova Kramer, takes aim at the human experience in all its messiness: addictions, the troubles of raising decent children, how we develop empathy. Its three shows will be distributed by The team has partnered with Westwood One on distribution, and upcoming guests include such star power as Jamie Lee Curtis, comedians Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro, and Aziz Ansari, author Reza Aslan, actress Mara Wilson, activist DeRay McKesson, songwriter Justin Tranter and filmmaker Kulap Vilaysack.

None of it, however, is what Wachs set out to do in her life. But she knows it's exactly where life led her.

"This is everything I've done in my whole life," she tells InnovationMap. "It sort of combines my writing and my education background and my artistic background and some voiceover background and my activism. It's everything."

A part of that everything is her brother Harris Wittels, a creative force in his own right, known for his works on Parks and Rec, who died of a drug overdose (Wachs used her reaction to that to write Everything is Horrible and Wonderful, which not only chronicles Harris' addiction, but also how she processed her grief). He was a podcaster as well, and Wachs says this venture helps continue that legacy.

"But it's also about activism," she says. "About opioids and every other epidemic we're going through that feels so unsolvable. And that's how I roll."

Since her brother's death, Wachs has looked for ways not only to process the grief and anger she felt, but also found herself more and more drawn to finding ways to educate people and advocate for better understanding of addiction and ways to treat it. When her two young children were diagnosed with hearing disorders, she found herself advocating for having hearing aids covered by health care. So, while she may not have wanted to step into an activist role, once she found herself there, she threw herself into it with her characteristic energy and intelligence and not a little humor.

"Our goal is to make shows that help people get out of bed in the morning, that help people deal with the hardest shit in their lives," says Kramer in a press release announcing the podcast launch.

Kramer and Wachs met in 2017. Kramer had heard Wachs on another podcast, and as the two continued talking, they realized they were developing a shared mission. Lemonada takes its name from the idea of taking life's lemons and making them into lemonade – incorporating the bitter and the sweet.

To make the transition from writer and artist to media maven, Wachs drew on her already established strengths of community building and a desire to create high-quality content.

"We really wanted to bring a community flavor into the mix," she says. "And, as a women-run company, it was huge for us to have women's voices."

Houstonian Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer launched Lemonada this fall. Photo via lemonadamedia.com

The result is a podcast network that brings to bear what Wachs calls incredible talent. The starting lineup includes "Last Day," which launched Sept. 25. Wachs confronts massive epidemics with humanity, wit, and a quest for progress. Starting with the opioid crisis, the show zooms in on a person's last day of life, exploring how they got there and how we, as a society, have gotten here.

Debuting on October 24, "As Me with Sinéad" explores the concept of empathy and how listening brings us closer. Academic, TED alum, and advocate Sinéad Burke leads candid conversations with diverse, notable guests who explain what it's like to be them. They challenge us to confront our biases, deepen our humanity, and feel empowered to impact and change the world around us.

And later in the year, with a debut date of November 26, comes "Good Kids: How Not to Raise an A**hole." For 15 minutes each week, a diverse set of parents, teachers, policy makers, and world shapers grab the mic and offer relevant advice, rants, and reflections. "Think of this as a quasi-manual for how to raise better humans," read the show's description in the press release.

"It feels almost non-profit in flavor," Wachs says of the endeavor. "I mean, we are a for-profit company, but it's mission driven, and that was important to both of us."

That mission, it seems, has also taken over the Wachs household. Over the summer, Wach's husband, Mike Wachs quit his job to work full-time with Lemonada, and Kramer's husband works in Lemonada's leadership, as well. That sense of family is galvanizing to Wachs, who loves that the new venture gives her time and space to watch her children grow. She's also crazy about how technology – everything from audio editing programs to conference calling to texting and FaceTime – has made Lemonada possible. Kramer took a safari as she and Wachs were planning the launch.

"I love that!" says Wachs. "We put everything on Slack and even though she was halfway around the world, it was like she was in my house."

The partnership with Westwood One gave Wachs her own tiny studio at 104 KRBE.

"It's really, truly miraculous," she says of the way the business was built. "And I know we all bring all these great gifts to the table. Mine is that I am able to talk all day," she quips."

Both she and Kramer are baking on the idea that there are a lot of people out there who feel like they do, that it's easier to survive life's challenges when you know you're not alone, who are ready to tune in and listen.

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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.