Houston startup founders prepare to scale globally following Shark Tank success

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 205

Berkley Luck and Pedro Silva, co-founders of Milkify, join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the impact of their successful Shark Tank experience. Photo courtesy of Milkify

While Milkify's founders — husband and wife team Pedro Silva and Berkley Luck — secured partners on a popular business pitch and investment show, the entire experience almost didn't happen.

Silva and Luck, who got her PhD in molecular and biomedical s at Baylor College of Medicine, founded the company to provide breast milk freeze drying as a service to Houston-area families. Now, Milkify has customers across the country, but the duo didn't know if going through the process would be worth the investment and publicity, or if it would just be a distraction.

"The competitor in me wanted to be the first breast milk company to go on the show and to tell our story to the world — to show the world what my wife came up with that we thought was so great," Silva says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It was probably the scariest 45 minutes of my life."

But the sharks bit. Milkify's episode aired in April, and two investors — Gwyneth Paltrow and Lori Greiner — agreed to a $400,000 convertible note for 20 percent equity in the company. Paltrow even said on the show that she would have used the service when she was breastfeeding.

"It was empowering," Luck says of getting to wear her white coat on TV and share the story of how she came up with the idea of Milkify. "It was important to me when we went on the show to express that this had a scientific basis, that we didn't start this lightly, and that we've made huge strides in doing this in the absolute safest way possible."

Silva says they can't talk about some of the details of the show or the deal, but since then, Milkify has reached new customers, received additional investment interest, grown its team, and built out its plan to scale, the founders shared on the podcast. The team also shares its big-picture scale plans, which include tapping international partners to potentially take Milkify's tech global.

"Our vision is for every family to have access to breast milk formula, but instead of re-creating breast milk in a lab, we're doing it with mom's own milk," Silva says, mentioning a partnership with a breast milk bank that will convert its operation from freezing to freeze drying donated milk. "We're also working with groups in the UK and Australia to launch similar services using our patented technology."

"By the end of the year, we hope to see some announcements with those partnerships across the globe."

From the beginning, the importance of Milkify's team has been on supporting working parents to give them the best way to care for their families, Silva says. And for Luck — who says she's proud of the integrity Milkify has at its core despite competitors offering lower-quality and, in some cases, dangerous alternatives — she sees a lot of research benefits for the company.

"It's amazing to be at this leading edge, not just of innovation but of research, and to be able to still put out meaningful advances as an industry partner, not just as an academic," Luck says, adding that she hopes to be able to continue to contribute to the ongoing research into breast milk.

Luck and Silva share more about their Shark Tank experience, their co-founder strengths, and the future of Milkify on the podcast. Listen to the interview here — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Sugar Land-based Fish Fixe floated their seafood delivery service on Shark Tank last year. Photo via Shark Tank

After catching a deal on Shark Tank, these Houston-area fish foodies swim toward more funding

reeling in cash

The benefits of working more fish into your diet are as endless as the vast ocean itself, but going about buying and cooking fish is an expensive and daunting process.

Houstonians Melissa Harrington and Emily Castro thought they could help and launched Fish Fixe in 2017 to tackle these challenges and bring high quality seafood direct to consumers. Fish Fixe delivers seafood with easy-to-access instructions on storage and thawing — plus cooking recipes that take around 20 minutes.

The duo launched the company in 2017 and appeared on the 13th season of Shark Tank last year. In 2020, with more people avoiding grocery stores and restaurants, they saw a 400-percent increase in sales. They pitched asking for $200,000 in investment. Lori Greiner, the "queen of QVC," took the bait — and 25 percent equity.

“COVID-19, which forced more people to eat at home and adopt direct-to-consumer services, and Shark Tank were both spring boards for our sales, and through these events we've been able to retain many customers,” says Harrington.

In order to sustain this growth and provide more opportunities to scale, Harrington and Castro put the Shark Tank investment into their distribution line and moved everything into a centralized distribution center which replenishes distribution centers in other parts of the country.

“By late Q2, we will have four distribution centers that can hit 99 percent of the US in less than two days,” says Harrington.

Up next, Harrington and Castro have their sights set on the customer experience and the content space, which they hope to support with some outside funding.

“We are going to go raise some money because we truly feel that with the right resources we can scale and serve more people and spread the message,” says Harrington. “The hard work, we kind of feel like, has already been done in the setup and now it’s time to go have fun and go market, which is really fun.”

Prior to Fish Fixe, Harrington and Castro both worked in food and beverage. Harrington worked in the live lobster business and sold lobsters to high-end Houston restaurants and HEB. Castro worked in wine and spirits and managed a team of 50 sales professionals. Leveraging that depth of experience, they were able to bring Fish Fixe from concept to market in 90 days.

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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.