Flourishing Nexus recently won runner up in the innovation category of the city's Liftoff Houston competition. Photo courtesy of the City of Houston

Connecting medical professionals is about to get easier thanks to a new Houston company, Flourishing Nexus.

Next month, their digital platform, The Nexus, will debut to in a soft launch to a curated group of TMC employees.

“Think of it as a combination of existing platforms like LinkedIn, providing professional networking; Khan Academy, which provides excellent training and education; and a collaborative workspace like Google Workspace or Microsoft Teams, all enhanced by AI,” says Diane Nguyen.

Nguyen is a pharmacist by training, while her co-founder, Satid Thammasitboon, is an MD and master in health professions education.

The pair began working together in the health professions education space three years ago, but only established Flourishing Nexus in July of 2023. The company’s moniker refers to the concept of human flourishing.

“Our mission would be to promote human flourishing among health professionals,” says Thammasitboon.

The concept of human flourishing traces back at least to Aristotle, but The Nexus’ understanding of it is based on psychologist and educator Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory. The mnemonic stands for Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment.

“We endeavor to bring these concepts of PERMA and human flourishing into the health professions space,” says Nguyen.

“Often our healthcare organizations or industries, when they hear health professionals are having issues with burnout, the response or reaction would be to increase incentive, financial support, or professional development to enhance resilience,” adds Thammasitboon. “We search for meaning we want to make a difference in the life of another rather than ‘everything is all about money.’”

Both professionals have globe-spanning careers. Thailand native Thammasitboon says that his endeavors have taken him across Europe, Southeast Asia, and East Asia, while Nguyen’s work has focused her attention on South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Eastern Europe.

“I realized that the key to providing better outcomes and health care for the patients was really dependent on the continuing education and training of the staff,” Nguyen says.

Those experiences proved to be the roots from which The Nexus grew.

But the team’s colleagues abroad won’t be among the first The Nexus users. That distinction will belong to Houston’s rich community of medical pros. And when the platform soft launches in January, it will be with two awards already under its belt.

The Liftoff Houston Startup Business Plan competition took place last month. Nine finalists, mostly entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds, were selected from among 100 applicants to compete in Liftoff’s Pitch Day. Not only was The Nexus among those competitors, it raked in a runner-up prize, as well as fan favorite in the innovation category.

Nguyen, who did the pitching, says that Liftoff helped Flourishing Nexus tremendously with both its preparation workshops and feedback from the judges.

“Sometimes you think you have a great idea but it’s not until you critically think about your own plan, analyze your plan, and prepare to pitch it that you really learn about it. This preparation helped us and strengthened our mission. Our business plan is much better,” says Thammasitboon.

Next up? Launching and growing The Nexus’ community. Nguyen also says they plan to participate in more competitions, including possibly Houston Community College’s Business Plan Competition. It’s one more way of bringing the abstract concept of human flourishing to a flesh and blood audience.

Liftoff Houston took place for the 11th year this past weekend. Here's who won prizes. Photo courtesy of the city of Houston

Houston entrepreneurs awarded over $30,000 at annual competition

biz plan

An annual pitch competition put on by the city of Houston named its big winners for this year.

The 11th annual Liftoff Houston Startup Business Plan Competition announced its three winners — and each will receive $10,000 in startup money. The winners are:

  • Teria Johnson's e-commerce sweet and savory pies company, Charleston Kitchen
  • Zoey Barker and Mohammadmehdi Mortazavi’s ExoBraced’s ExoBak, a light-weight exoskeleton to help with back pain and prevent injuries from manual workers
  • Giovanni Garza’s Classic Borrego Retail, which offers high-end cowboy boots.

There were nine finalists that were selected from over 100 applicants and competed in Liftoff’s Pitch Day on November 18, where they were ranked on service, product, and innovation after pitching their businesses to a panel of expert judges.

In the event’s 11 years, 33 winners started businesses in the fields of merchandise/retail, software,education, hardware, hospitality, health and wellness, finance, technology,consulting, and logistics. The yearly event is sponsored by Capital One Bank and administered by the Houston Public Library and the Office of Business Opportunity. Liftoff Houston’s results have reflected the diversity of the city.

“The program is especially significant as data collected from recent competitions shows Liftoff Houston made an impact on populations that have been historically marginalized,” says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. “More than 90 percent of participants identified as people of color, more than 70 percent were female, 44 percent had no college degree, and 54 percent earned less than $50,000 a year.”

Runners received $500 each. They are:

  • Francesca Bonaduc’e De Nigris: Intrecci by Francesca collaborates with artisans around the world, to deliver one-of-a-kind handmade rugs.
  • Diana Tudela and Hailee Trombley’s The Goodest Goodbye: a pet aftercare company that uses cutting-edge technology and environmentally conscious efforts.
  • Diane Nguyen’s Flourishing Nexus LLC: a virtual platform that unites health professionals worldwide.

Liftoff Houston – and our finalists – have also made it this far because of our workshop partners, all who have given us the invaluable gift of their time,” says OBO Director Marsha Murray in a news release. “The business, financial, legal and marketing education they have provided has allowed our participants to plan a roadmap to their success, including the creation of viable business plans.”

Small businesses in Houston can apply for the annual Liftoff Houston competition. Photo via liftoffhouston.smapply.org

City of Houston opens applications for 2023 business competition

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The City of Houston opened applications for its annual Liftoff Houston Startup Business Plan Competition, which helps local founders bring their months-old companies to new heights.

Now in its 11th year, the competition and educational program awards $10,000 in seed money to three founders after completing a four-month-long workshop series that culminates in a Pitch Day. Winners are named in three categories: Innovation, Product and Service.

Applications must be received by 4 p.m. on Friday, August 4. And Pitch Day will be held on November 18. To be eligible for the competition, applicants must live in Houston and operate their businesses here. Businesses must have only been in operation for less than a year and show verifiable revenue that does not exceed $10,000. Founders who do not meet these criteria are eligible for Liftoff's Educational Pathway track that does not include the competition portion of the program.

“For 11 years, Liftoff Houston has empowered participants to achieve financial mobility through entrepreneurship,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. “These participants have become key drivers to the success of Houston’s economy, and they have contributed to our communities by creating jobs and by providing much needed goods and services.”

Liftoff Houston is sponsored by Capital One Bank and administered by the Houston Public Library and the City's Office of Business Opportunity. According to a statement, the program has helped serve historically marginalized populations in Houston. In last year's cohort, 95 of participants identified as people of color, 77 percent were female, 44 percent had no college degree and 54 percent made less than $50,000.

Last year's winners in the Innovation, Product and Service were:

  • Innovation: Aditya Aggarwal, founder of Maritime XR, which aims to supplement conventional maritime training with virtual reality simulations.
  • Product: Hannah Le, founder of RE.STATEMENT, a marketplace for designers to upcycle old fashion into wearable art
  • Service: Natasha Roberts, founder of ActIVate Drip Spa, which provides medical-grade IV drips that help eliminate toxins and aid hydration and recovery

"I wanted to see how far I could go," Le told Innovation Map earlier this year. "I had pitched before, but this was the first time that I was onstage and I just felt like I belonged there."

Le shared more about the founding of RE.STATEMENT and how Liftoff Houston impacted her business in an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast




Hannah Le founded RE.STATEMENT to provide a much-needed platform for sustainable fashion finds. Photo courtesy of RE.STATEMENT

This Houston entrepreneur is enabling fashion upcycling for more sustainable style

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When shopping online one day, Hannah Le saw a need for a platform that allowed transactions between upcycling fashion designers and shoppers looking for unique, sustainable pieces.

Le created RE.STATEMENT, an online shopping marketplace for upcycled clothing. Before RE.STATEMENT, designers were limited to Etsy, which is focused on handmade pieces, or Poshmark and Depop, which are dedicated to thrift finds. Upcycle fashion designers didn't have their own, unique platform to sell on — and, likewise, shoppers were scattered across sites too.

"These marketplaces are really good for what they do," Le says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "but, whenever I think of someone looking for something unique and sustainable, it's hard for me to imagine finding that on these marketplaces."

The platform soft launched in December with 25 upcycling designers and over 1,200 buyers that had been on the company's waitlist for almost nine months. Now that the site is live, Le hopes to give both buyers and sellers quick access to transactions.

"Most designers give up if they haven't sold an item within three months," Le explains. "That's something RE.STATEMENT has dedicated its business model to — making sure that items sell faster and at a higher value than any other marketplace."

Le says that she started with buyers to see what exactly they were looking for, then she searched and found the designers looking to sell their pieces, and the current platform is dynamic and flexible to the needs of users within her community.

"Even today, it changes every single day depending on how users are interacting with the website and what sellers are saying that they need — really communicating with buyers and sellers is how the marketplace is evolving," she says.

RE.STATEMENT's ability to quickly evolve has been due to its early stage, Le explains on the show. She's not yet taken on institutional funding or hired anyone else other than tech support. She says this allows her to quickly make changes or try out new things for users.

"For me, there are still so many things I want to prove to myself before I bring others involved," she says. "To start, it's coming up with new opportunities for buyers to interact with the website so that we can keep learning from them."

Le has already proven some success to herself. Last year, she took home one of three prizes offered at the city's Liftoff Houston competition. The contest, which gives Houston entrepreneurs pitch practice and mentorship, awarded RE.STATEMENT $10,000 for winning in the product category.

"I wanted to see how far I could go," Le says of the competition where she got to introduce her business to Mayor Sylvester Turner and a whole new audience of people. "I had pitched before, but this was the first time that I was onstage and I just felt like I belonged there."

Le shares more about her vision for RE.STATEMENT and the integral role Houston plays in her success on the show.


Three Houston entrepreneurs walked away from this year's Liftoff Houston with $10,000 in prize money. Photo courtesy of the city of Houston

City of Houston names 3 companies ready for liftoff

ready to grow

Three local entrepreneurs have received a big lift from the City of Houston’s 2022 edition of the Liftoff Houston startup business plan competition. Each entrepreneur received a $10,000 cash prize.

Natasha Roberts won in the service category. She is the founder of ActIVate Drip Spa, which provides medical-grade IV drips that help eliminate toxins and aid hydration and recovery.

Hannah Le prevailed in the product category. Her startup, RE.STATEMENT, runs a marketplace for designers to upcycle old fashion into wearable art.

Aditya Aggarwal claimed victory in the innovation category. Her business, Maritime XR, aims to supplement conventional maritime training with virtual reality simulations.

“Liftoff Houston goes beyond the $10,000 grand prize that is awarded in each category. This program is also about business education, mentorship and networking — all of which are foundations of creating a successful business,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a news release.

All of the entrepreneurs who competed in Liftoff Houston attended nearly four months of workshops and met with business and financial mentors. Representatives of Capital One Bank and SCORE Houston their business plans. To devise their business plans, the entrepreneurs relied on free resources from the Houston Public Library and the city’s Office of Business Opportunity.

The winners were announced November 5. This year’s nine finalists were chosen from more than 160 applicants.

The other finalists in the service category were:

  • Charmeyce Buck and Frerika Varlack of Ignite Diagnostic Solutions, a professional analytical laboratory.
  • Kimberly Evans of the Coterie Wine Bar & Social Club, whose customers come from underserved communities.

The other finalists in the product category were:

  • Suzanne Knobel of Bennie’s Old-Fashioned Ketchup, which produces small-batch ketchup made with fresh tomatoes.
  • Stefanie Jones of Yvonne Beauty, a beauty retailer whose clients are Black women.

The other finalists in the innovation category were:

  • Sean Carroll of Buffalo Seaweed, the first algae farm in Texas.
  • Terri Nguyen of SHI Educational Properties, which builds affordable modular homes.
Here's your latest roundup of Houston startup and innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

Houston startup raises $25M, biz plan competition opens apps, and more local innovation news

Short stories

We're on the other side of the hill that is Houston's summer, but the Bayou City's still hot in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, a Houston venture capital fund has made its latest investment, a hydrogen startup has raised fresh funding, accelerators open apps, and more.

Houston hydrogen startup closes $25M series B

This hydrogen company has fresh funding. Photo via utility.global

Utility Global, a Houston-based sustainable hydrogen company, has closed its series B round of funding to the tune of $25 million, Axios reports.

Houston-based private equity firm Ara Partners led the round. Other participating investors included: Samsung Ventures, NOVA, and Aramco.

Utility Global, founded in 2018, has developed a clean hydrogen solution. The proprietary tech — called the eXERO Technology Platform — includes a zero electricity process that converts sustainable waste streams into high-purity hydrogen. Additionally, the company developed its H2Gen Product Line that delivers customers reliable, low carbon, and high purity hydrogen, which offers unparalleled feedstock flexibility and highly competitive economics.

"Leveraging our industry-first eXERO™ Process, Utility Global is expanding into numerous industrial sectors," reads the company's website. "Whether it's next-gen fueling, green chemicals, or sustainable steel, Utility Global's products can meet your needs. Our ultra-high-purity hydrogen is also ideal for the electronics, food, and glass industries. In the steel industry, our waste-to-hydrogen offering converts waste-gases into pure hydrogen, enabling decarbonization of the steel making process.

Houston female-focused VC fund leads round of fintech company

The Artemis Fund — led by Diana Murakhovskaya, Leslie Goldman, and Stephanie Campbell — has announced its latest investment. Courtesy photos

Houston-based Artemis Fund — a women-led, female-focused venture capital fund, has released information on its latest investment. The firm announced it has led the seed funding round for Los Angeles-based Payverse, a payment processor focusing on enabling global commerce via emerging technologies.

The round also saw participation from Alpha Ascent Ventures, Frank Mastrangelo, Mary Wieler, and Jonathan Palmer. Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP represented Artemis in the deal.

“The Artemis Fund invests in phenomenal female talent modernizing and diversifying wealth. Payverse is poised to transform the payments industry by making it easier and more cost-effective for businesses and consumers to transact globally," says Stephanie Campbell, general partner at The Artemis Fund, in a news release. "We are proud to lead the company’s seed round which includes other top FinTech experts and industry leaders."

Houston public service professional accelerator opens applications for its second cohort

HTXelerator is gearing up for its second cohort. Photo via HoustonTX.gov

With its mission to identify and prepare future-focused leaders for public service, specifically boards, commissions, and city council, HTXelerator, a nonprofit that launched last fall, has opened applications for the second cohort. The three-month program trains class members on the nuts and bolts of city government and ends with a competition known as The Pitch, which enables each participant to put forward a policy platform for a hypothetical race.

“The Houston region continues to grow and subsequently so does the need for public leadership to reflect the city’s dynamic diversity," says Renee Cross, senior director at the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs, in a news release. "HTXelerator will allow people with an interest in public service to learn from experts in government, non-profit organizations, academia and the private sector. Whether pursuing a leadership position or running for office, HTXelerator graduates will be ahead of the game.”

Applications are due by August 22, and the cohort members will be announced by August 29. There is no fee to apply, but the program costs $250 per participant. Scholarships are available for those that need assistance. The program kicks off with a weekend retreat September 10 and 11 and ends with The Pitch competition on December 7.

Houston startup partners with pet tech giant

Wag, Robinhood, and DonateStock have teamed up on a new initiative. Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

Houston-based DonateStock, a fintech platform that easily enables stock-based donations, has been adopted by Wag, a mobile-first marketplace for pet services. The company, which also struck a deal with Robinhood. Through these partnerships, the company has launched its Wag! Community Shares Program, a new method of charitable giving for the community of pet caregivers and for domestic pet nonprofit organizations, according to a news release.

Through its SPAC, CHW Acquisition Corp., Wag! will reserve up to 300,000 shares of common stock for the program, to be arranged through and administered by Robinhood. The company goes into more details — including information on how to participate — in the release.

“We are excited to play a key role in this ground-breaking initiative to use common stock to support domestic pet nonprofits at scale,” says Steve Latham, CEO and co-founder of DonateStock, in the release. “Our mission is to democratize charitable stock gifting. By allocating stock to more than 500 pet nonprofits, Wag! is expanding the definition of what that means.”

Annual business competition lifts off

Houston business competition opens applications

Small businesses in Houston can apply for the annual Liftoff Houston competition. Photo via liftoffhouston.smapply.org

The city of Houston's annual business plan competition has kicked off. Liftoff Houston is an entrepreneurial initiative aimed at empowering Houston entrepreneurs mentorship and business support and education.The program's sponsor, Capital One Bank, provides cash prizes totaling $30,000.

To be eligible for the startup program, the applicant:

  • Must be in the start-up phase of your business, which means you either must have a business idea or have a business in operation for less than one year
  • Must have revenue of less than $10,000
  • Must live within the city of Houston limits. Also, if you have a business location, it must be within the city of Houston limits.

Participants can also apply for the 2022 Liftoff Houston Educational Pathway. There are no eligibility requirements for that program, which will support small businesses and provide access to workshops and the final competition event.

There will be three award categories: product, service, and innovation.

  • $10,000 – Awarded for top “Product” Based Business Plan (Retail, resale, merchandise, etc.)
  • $10,000 – Awarded for top “Service” Based Business Plan (Food, labor, consulting, etc.)
  • $10,000 – Awarded for top “Innovation” Based Business Plan (Software, Hardware, inventions, new market businesses, etc.)

The competition will open applications online on July 27 and close August 19. The full schedule is online.

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Houston immuno-oncology company reaches next FDA milestone, heads to phase 2 trial

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A Houston immuno-oncology company has recently made major headway with the FDA, including both a fast track and an orphan drug designation. It will soon start a phase 2 trial of its promising cancer fighting innovation.

Diakonos Oncology was born in 2016, the brainchild of Baylor researchers already hard at work in the realm of dendritic cell vaccines. Drs. Will Decker, Matt Halpert, and Vanaja Konduri partnered with Dan Faust, a Houston businessman and pharmacist, to bring their treatment to the public, says COO Jay Hartenbach.

The name Diakonos means “deacon or servant in Greek,” he explains. “A lot of companies end up focusing on treating a specific disease or cancer and what you end up having is a significant amount of potential but with a lot of tradeoffs and downsides. And so our goal is we need to eliminate the cancer but we can't harm or dramatically malign the patient in doing so.”

How do they do that? Because the therapy catalyzes a natural immune response, it’s the patient’s own body that’s fighting the cancer. Hartenbach credits Decker with the idea of educating dendritic cells to attack cancer, in this case, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), one of the most aggressive cancers with which doctors and patients are forced to tangle.

“Our bodies are already very good at responding very quickly and aggressively to what it perceives as virally infected cells. And so what Dr. Decker did was basically trick the immune system by infecting these dendritic cells with the cancer specific protein and mRNA,” details Hartenbach.

Jay Hartenbach is the COO of Diakonos Oncology. Photo courtesy of Diakonos Oncology

But GBM isn’t the only cancer on which Diakonos Oncology has its sights set. Other notably stubborn-to-treat cancers that they’re working on include pancreatic cancer and angiosarcoma. The scientists are focused on meeting unmet medical needs, but also realize that treating such cancers would allow for the fastest determination of whether or not the treatment was effective.

The fast track designation, originally received last fall, means that the drug approval time for DOC1021, Diakonos’ glioblastoma vaccine, will be only six months. But Hartenbach highlights an additional boon, the fact that the special designation also allows for more frequent communications with the FDA.

“That’s very helpful for us, right as we're contemplating how to design the upcoming trials. From a business standpoint, it also is incredibly helpful because it provides a third party validation of what we're doing and the results that we're seeing,” he says.

What they’re seeing includes the survival of 13 out of 16 patients from the initial October 2021 enrollment. The three patients who passed away received the lowest dose of DOC1021. Hartenbach says that the remaining patients are thriving, with no serious adverse effects. With a median survival rate of 15 to 21 months, it’s hard to understate the significance of these patients’ success.

Diakonos Oncology is headquartered in Houston, with a staff of 10 in Space City and an additional eight distributed employees. Hartenbach says that the company’s hometown has been instrumental in its success. He mentions that the robust innovation of the Texas Medical Center meant that as the company has grown, there has never been a motivation to leave Houston.

“You're having a lot of both investment and companies actually moving to Houston,” Hartenbach says. “So we’ve been fortunate to have started there. There are bigger traditional biotech hubs, San Diego, Boston, and San Francisco, but Houston really is now putting itself on the map and it's getting a lot of attention.”

One of the companies responsible for that improved reputation? Diakonos Oncology and its promising approach to aggressive cancers.

Houston professor earns competitive NSF award, nearly $700,000 grant

science supported

An assistant professor at Rice University has won one of the highly competitive National Science Foundation's CAREER Awards.

The award grants $670,406 over five years to Amanda Marciel, the William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched, according to a statement from Rice. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

“My goal is to create a new paradigm for designing elastomers,” Marciel said in a statement. “The research has four aims: to determine the role of comb polymer topology in forming elastomers, understanding the effects of that topology on elastomer mechanics, characterizing its effects on elastomer structure and increasing the intellectual diversity in soft matter research.”

Marciel, who joined the faculty at Rice in 2019, is one of about 500 researchers to receive the NSF's CAREER Award each year. The award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF.

In addition to supporting Marciel's research, the funds will also go toward creating opportunities in soft matter research for undergraduates and underrepresented scientists. It will establish a new annual symposium called the Texas Soft Matter Meeting, where community college teachers can participate in a soft matter laboratory module and students in the Research Experiences for Undergrads program at Rice will present their summer research.

Recently, Rice also launched the new Rice Synthetic Biology Institute, which aims to strengthen the synthetic biology community across disciplines at the university. It is part of an $82 million investment the university put toward synthetic biology, neuroengineering and physical biology in 2018.

A fellow team or Rice researcher is also working on wearable haptic accessories. A member of the team was recently named to the 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows. Click here to learn more.