A startup and a nonprofit makerspace have rallied to create PPE, or personal protective equipment, for local hospitals. Getty Images

In the span of one day, the founders of Houston-based Lazarus 3D received calls from emergency room directors and physicians and vice presidents of hospitals explaining a dire need for personal protective equipment — like surgical masks and face shields — for medical professionals in the front lines of the battle against COVID-19.

"We stopped everything we were doing," says Jacques Zaneveld, co-founder of Lazarus, which makes 3D-printed human organs for surgeons to practice on. "We've moved 100 percent of our focus on developing PPE."

Now, Zaneveld with his co-founder, Smriti Agrawal Zaneveld, have manufacturing orders in for 700,000 surgical masks weekly and have designed a non-FDA approved face shield, which they have ordered a few million of. The duo has taken out a short-term loan to front the cost of the medical equipment and are now looking for the right customers to buy these new PPE products. All hospitals and medical professionals in need of supplies can head to Lazarus' website to request more info.

"Our personal feeling has been to do whatever we can do to build as many as possible," Jacques tells InnovationMap. "It's very stressful because I'm borrowing money that we don't have in order to set up these production lines."

On the other side of town, 3D printing nonprofit TXRX has reprogramed 30 of its 3D printers to make PPE. The nonprofit is working Memorial Hermann to quickly prototype and test items made with materials they can get their hands on.

The Center for Disease Control has relaxed some of the requirements for PPE in light of the crisis and shortage, and Roland von Kurnatowski, president at TX/RX Labs, says that has helped speed up their efforts. But, the biggest challenge, he says, has been to quickly get together a design and prototype for Memorial Hermann to give them feedback so that they can then produce the products.

"I think there are a lot of people out there producing devices, but I think the problem is there's not a lot of clarity around materials, quality, and acceptance. People are doing what they can with what they've got," says von Kurnatowski. "Our hope working with Memorial Hermann was to make sure we are devising and testing devices that are functional and appropriate.

TXRX is also relying on Memorial Hermann and others in the medical community to indicate which PPE devices are most needed. Currently, the nonprofit is printing 10,000 face shields for Memorial Hermann, but also has designs for N95 respirators, surgical masks, a positive air pressure respirator (or PAPR), Tyvek suit, and even a portable shield for the intubation process.

Von Kurnatowski says the Houston community can get involved by donating to TXRX's GoFundMe campaign. The 3D printing process is quick and local, but expensive and out of budget for hospitals, so TXRX is taking a loss on its products it is creating. The organization is also looking for people who might have 3D printing materials or experience to volunteer — TXRX has about 20 people working on this but hopes that number ramps up to 60 to 80 people helping out.

Crisis also brings the community together in their time of need — that's what Zaneveld says he sees happening.

"Everyone who is at all involved in the medical space in engineering in Houston is trying to put stuff out," Zaneveld says. "We're sharing information and trying to work together to support each other."

Comicpalooza takes place Friday, May 9, to Sunday, May 12. Courtesy of Comicpalooza

Here's what you can expect at Houston's Comicpalooza this weekend from esports to Game of Thrones stars

Bend the knee

People from around the world will be flocking to downtown Houston by the thousands, and not just for the Astros and the Rockets. The 11th annual Comicpalooza is taking over the George R. Brown Convention Center from Friday, May 10, to Sunday, May 12.

"This major super block in downtown will be absolutely electric this weekend," Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president, tells InnovationMap.

Last year, the convention attracted over 50,000 people from 47 states and 17 countries, and it made an economic impact of over $20 million, Heckman says. This year, with the help of Game of Thrones stars and an inaugural ESPN event, Comicpalooza should surpass last year's accomplishments.

Here's what you can expect from this weekend.

A crowd at the panel that has two Game of Thrones actresses

Emilia Clarke (left) plays Daenerys in Game of Thrones, and Nathalie Emmanuel plays her adviser and friend, Missandei. Photos courtesy of Comicpalooza

A panel on Saturday morning at 11 am will have two Game of Thrones stars — Emilia Clarke (Daenerys) and Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei). The panel is sure to attract the masses, and the two actresses are major gets by the organization.

"To be able to get Emilia Clarke in the middle of the final season of Game of Thrones, with only two episodes to go — the hype has been unbelievable," Heckman says. "To be able to have a pop culture phenomenon like that come here to Houston — and it will be her first fan event. She's done the San Diego Comic Con, but that was more of a media event."

Both actresses also have autograph visits available for purchase. Clarke's are sold out online, but some opportunities will be made available day of.

The first ever ESPN collegiate esports competition

ESPN's inaugural esports competition for college students is premiering at Comicpalooza. Jamie McInall/Pexels

For the first time ever, ESPN is having a collegiate esports championship and chose Houston to be the place for the finals.

"We've understood the value of [esports] for Comicpalooza for a number of years. ESPN is making a big investment — it's their first ever event of this nature, but it won't be their last," Heckman says.

Students from hundreds of schools have competed to make it to the semifinals and championship in Houston, and scholarships are on the line. The weekend will have 22 teams across five video games — Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, StarCraft II, and Street Fighter V — according to ESPN. To read more about the competition, click here.

Makers on display

Anyone can check out the Comicpalooza Maker's Space — there's even a place to fix any cosplay wardrobe malfunctions. Photo via comicpalooza.com

Calling all makers — professionals or wannabes. Comicpalooza's Maker's Space is open to cosplayers, artists, engineers, scientists and everyone in between who wants to create and build using old and new technology, from small electrical parts to towering 3D printers and Lego masterpieces.

"What a lot of people don't know is there are so many interesting aspects to Comicpalooza — from literature tracks to a film festival to a makerspace," Heckman says. "There are hundreds of exhibitors on the expo showfloor, but there's an area carved out for makers."

A party on the promenade

Free concert anyone? Photo via comicpalooza.com

From 6 to 10 pm on Saturday, Avenida Houston will be transformed into an after party put on by Saint Arnold's and headlined by Icona Pop. It's free to attend, and you can get more info here.

VIPs all around

It's not just the Game of Thrones people being featured. Photos via comicpalooza.com

Comicpalooza attendees can grab photos with or autographs from over 30 different actors across major franchises — like Star Trek, Walking Dead, and so much more.

The list of actors is as follows: Emilia Clarke, Nathalie Emmanuel, Grant Gustin, Wilmer Valderrama, Dan Fogler, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, John Wesley Shipp, Peter Serafinowicz, Griffin Newman, Yara Martinez, Brendan Hines, Scott Speiser, Jeremy Davies, Andrew Divoff, Mira Furlan, Erick Avari and more.

TXRX's new East End Space will allow them to provide prototyping and manufacturing services to more innovators. Courtesy of TXRX

Houston nonprofit makerspace seeking donations as it prepares to move into its new home

Calling for cash

With grants and public funds secured, Houston-based TXRX Labs as one last round of fundraising to acquire before it's ready to head full-speed ahead into its new location.

TXRX launched a $85,000 fundraising campaign to help get the organization where it needs to be before it moves into its 60,000-square-foot space in the East End Maker Hub in spring or summer of next year. The organization, along with its sister nonprofit, Urban Partnership Community Development Corp., has been selected by the city of Houston for an $18 million award and by the federal government for a $5 million innovation grant.

"In the last two weeks, we were getting close to finalizing funding for the building and came up short," says Lauren Caldarera, development director at TXRX. "We wanted to reach out to our membership at TXRX and the broader Houston community to help see if people will help support this unique offering for Houston."

In order to receive those grants, TXRX needs to submit design materials — a process that they budget to cost $325,000. (TXRX has already procured $240,000.) An anonymous donor agreed to match donations, and the organization has until the end of May to raise. Anyone can donate online.

TXRX is focused on bringing back Houston's East End as a manufacturing hub. As manufacturing jobs left the second, third, and fifth wards, it's created a need for skilled labor, middle class jobs, says Roland von Kurnatowski, executive director of TXRX.

"We're looking to bring together innovative companies in the physical innovation space into the East End and creating these middle class jobs," says von Kurnatowski. "It's a modern approach to combating economic inequalities instead of providing handouts."

TXRX is already making a dent in their mission with their smaller space. The organization has over 400 members and incubates 20 or so companies. The new space will allow TXRX to incubate almost twice that amount, work with 75 companies who need prototyping and manufacturing services, and grow their classes and educational offerings.

"Having this space is critical as Houston moves forward in creating an innovation ecosystem," Caldarera says. "We need a space for people to develop their physical prototypes, have engineers and other experts to coach and mentor them, and create more startups and innovators here."

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Houston ecommerce scale-up company acquires Amazon advertising partner

all aboard

A Houston tech company has tapped an Amazon partner in a strategic acquisition and is bringing the company's full team on board.

Cart.com acquired Ohio-based Amify, a company that provides optimization and advertising solutions. The terms of the deal were not disclosed but Cart.com will on board Amify’s entire employee base, including its founder Ethan McAfee, CEO Chris Mehrabi, and COO Christine McCambridge.

As chief delivery officer, Mehrabi will take the helm of Cart.com’s professional services business and McCambridge will lead Cart.com’s marketplace services team as vice president of marketplace services operations.

“I’m happy to welcome the entire Amify team to Cart.com and have industry veterans Chris Mehrabi and Christine McCambridge join our leadership team,” Cart.com Founder and CEO Omair Tariq says in a news release. “Amify has been widely recognized for their expertise and technology and we’re excited to leverage their experience to help our customers maximize their potential across channels.”

Cart.com's membership will have access to Amify's proprietary technology platform, including advertising, creative content, supply chain strategy, and analytics. The company, which was founded in 2011, currently supports over 50 global brands and manages approximately $1 billion in gross merchandise value. According to LinkedIn, Amify has over 50 employees.

“We could not be more excited to join Cart.com and leverage the company’s resources and scale to deliver value to both our customers and employees,” Mehrabi says. “I’m honored to step into the role of Chief Delivery Officer and contribute to Cart.com’s incredible growth story and innovative reputation.”

Founded in Houston in 2020, Cart.com provides comprehensive physical and digital infrastructure for online merchants. The company raised a $60 million series C and grown its customer base to over 6,000 users. After making several acquisitions, the company also operates 14 fulfillment centers nationwide.

Earlier this year, Tariq sat down with the Houston Innovators Podcast to share a bit about how the company is currently in scale-up mode.

Houston health tech innovator collaborates on promising medical device funded by DOD

team work

The United States Department of Defense has awarded a grant that will allow the Texas Heart Institute and Rice University to continue to break ground on a novel left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that could be an alternative to current devices that prevent heart transplantation and are a long-term option in end-stage heart failure.

The grant is part of the DOD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). It was awarded to Georgia Institute of Technology, one of four collaborators on the project that will be designed and evaluated by the co-investigator Yaxin Wang. Wang is part of O.H. “Bud” Frazier’s team at Texas Heart Institute, where she is director of Innovative Device & Engineering Applications Lab. The other institution working on the new LVAD is North Carolina State University.

The project is funded by a four-year, $7.8 million grant. THI will use about $2.94 million of that to fund its part of the research. As Wang explained to us last year, an LVAD is a minimally invasive device that mechanically pumps a person’s own heart. Frazier claims to have performed more than 900 LVAD implantations, but the devices are far from perfect.

The team working on this new research seeks to minimize near-eventualities like blood clot formation, blood damage, and driveline complications such as infection and limitations in mobility. The four institutions will try to innovate with a device featuring new engineering designs, antithrombotic slippery hydrophilic coatings (SLIC), wireless power transfer systems, and magnetically levitated driving systems.

Wang and her team believe that the non-contact-bearing technology will help to decrease the risk of blood clotting and damage when implanting an LVAD. The IDEA Lab will test the efficacy and safety of the SLIC LVAD developed by the multi-institutional team with a lab-bench-based blood flow loop, but also in preclinical models.

“The Texas Heart Institute continues to be a leading center for innovation in mechanical circulatory support systems,” said Joseph G. Rogers, MD, the president and CEO of THI, in a press release.

“This award will further the development and testing of the SLIC LVAD, a device intended to provide an option for a vulnerable patient population and another tool in the armamentarium of the heart failure teams worldwide.”

If it works as hypothesized, the SLIC LVAD will improve upon current LVAD technology, which will boost quality of life for countless heart patients. But the innovation won’t stop there. Technologies that IDEA Lab is testing include wireless power transfer for medical devices and coatings to reduce blood clotting could find applications in many other technologies that could help patients live longer, healthier lives.

Houston investor on SaaS investing and cracking product-market fit

Houston innovators podcast episode 230

Aziz Gilani's career in tech dates back to when he'd ride his bike from Clear Lake High School to a local tech organization that was digitizing manuals from mission control. After years working on every side of the equation of software technology, he's in the driver's seat at a local venture capital firm deploying funding into innovative software businesses.

As managing director at Mercury, the firm he's been at since 2008, Gilani looks for promising startups within the software-as-a-service space — everything from cloud computing and data science and beyond.

"Once a year at Mercury, we sit down with our partners and talk about the next investment cycle and the focuses we have for what makes companies stand out," Gilani says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The current software investment cycle is very focused on companies that have truly achieved product-market fit and are showing large customer adoption."



An example of this type of company is Houston-based RepeatMD, which raised a $50 million series A round last November. Mercury's Fund V, which closed at an oversubscribed $160 million, contributed to RepeatMD's round.

"While looking at that investment, it really made me re-calibrate a lot of my thoughts in terms what product-market fit meant," Gilani says. "At RepeatMD, we had customers that were so eager for the service that they were literally buying into products while we were still making them."

Gilani says he's focused on finding more of these high-growth companies to add to Mercury's portfolio amidst what, admittedly, has been a tough time for venture capital. But 2024 has been looking better for those fundraising.

"We've some potential for improvement," Gilani says. "But overall, the environment is constrained, interest rates haven't budged, and we've seen some potential for IPO activity."

Gilani shares more insight into his investment thesis, what areas of tech he's been focused on recently, and how Houston has developed as an ecosystem on the podcast.