This week's innovators to know in Houston includes Marcelo Cordini of December Labs, Courtney Sikes Longmore of Pure Palate, and Josh Ruben of Z3VR. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators representing a diverse set of industries — from virtual reality to software development — all making headlines in Houston this week.

Marcelo Cordini, co-founder of December Labs

Marcelo Cordini, co-founder of December Labs, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the unique service his company provides an evolving tech workforce. Photo courtesy of December Labs

Marcelo Cordini realized that nowadays, software developers are like rockstars. They can make or break a startup or technology's success and finding the best development team can be hard to do. But hiring and cultivating software talent is a specialty most companies — big or small — has the time or expertise to handle. That's where December Labs comes in.

"We are always learning new technologies — that's our focus," Cordini says. "If you have a big company focused on real estate, your focus is on real estate — not technology. So, if you partner with a company like us, it will give you that value to have someone who knows how to hire developers and how to train them."

Cordini joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss the unique service his company provides and the state of software employment is in these days. Read more and stream the episode.

Courtney Sikes Longmore, founder at Pure Palate

Women in the work place have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Photo via Pexels

According to Labor Department statistics, 1.1 million people left the workforce in August and September, and of that 800,000 were women. This data wasn't surprising to Courtney Sikes Longmore, an entrepreneur and founder of Pure Palate — however it was a call to action. She teamed up with Sesh Coworking to host a panel (click here to stream) to discuss how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected women and co-wrote a guest article with Maggie Segrich on the subject too.

"A decline of women in the labor force, on teams, in leadership positions and in decision-making roles compromises not just our economy's recovery and productivity, but also the innovation and effectiveness in industry, competitiveness on a global scale, aspirations of future generations of women, and society as a whole," they write. Read more.

Josh Ruben, CEO of Z3VR

Houston-based Z3VR has been granted $500,000 to work or virtual reality applications in space. Photo courtesy of Z3VR

The Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health is always trying to find and support innovations that will help current and future astronauts, and Josh Ruben's company, Z3VR, was a perfect fit to work on virtual reality applications in space. The company received a $500,000 grant from TRISH last month to continue exploring how the wide world of virtual reality can boost mental and physical health for astronauts on a mission to Mars.

"This TRISH funding means the world," he says. "Not only do we have these partnerships within NASA, which we expect will really help address these problems, but we are already taking the funds and putting them to work in the US health care system." Read more.

Marcelo Cordini, co-founder of December Labs, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the unique service his company provides an evolving tech workforce. Photo courtesy of December Labs

Houston company is connecting rockstar developers with growing startups and big corporations

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 53

For tech startups, a great business idea is step one, design and development is that next, make-or-break step. A Houston company exists to help staff development teams with talented specialists across various fields.

December Labs, which has offices in Uruguay and Houston, has seen the industry evolve since its founding in 2014. Nowadays, it's a competition for startups and corporations alike to get the best tech teams.

"Developers are kind of rockstars nowadays — it's very hard to attract them and keep them happy. We can help with that," says Marcelo Cordini, co-founder of December Labs, on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Cordini and his co-founders — Martin Palatnik, Diego San Esteban, and Washington Miranda — designed their business's service to provide development teams to companies of all sizes and industries, from startups to big companies.

"We are always learning new technologies — that's our focus," Cordini says. "If you have a big company focused on real estate, your focus is on real estate — not technology. So, if you partner with a company like us, it will give you that value to have someone who knows how to hire developers and how to train them."

Similar to most companies, the pandemic posed its challenges to December Labs, but one thing that the company has going for it is the evolution of the workforce. Now, it's way less important to have your team in house, as Cordini explains.

"It's the same to have your developers in South America as having them in the U.S., right? Because we are all working from home," he says. "We were lucky and prepared [for the pandemic]."

You can listen to the full interview with Cordini below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

When Marcelo Cordini moved his company to Houston, he didn't know what to expect. Now, a couple years later, he's poised for growth. Courtesy of December Labs

Growing UX developer credits Houston with company success

UX expectations

In December 2014, four guys from Uruguay banded together and created December Labs, a company specializing in UX and UI design, web development and mobile development for startups. After three years of success there, co-founder Marcelo Cordini's wife had her job transferred to "a city full of companies from everywhere" — Houston.

"To be honest, I came without expectations, not knowing what to do with the tech space here," Cordini says. "But I discovered that the city's innovation scene was rising and that the whole startup environment too. We didn't know Houston had a startup environment."

Cordini, along with co-founders, Martin Palatnik, Diego San Esteban, and Washington Miranda, have created a base here in Houston at Station Houston, with headquarters stationed in San Francisco as well as Uruguay.

The company's international presence can be seen in their client base, which includes industry giants like Google, Accenture, and Nest.

"When I got here, people told us that we should just go to Austin," Cordini says. "But, to be honest, this is a big city with lots of great companies — not just corporations, but startups — that are growing and thrive and have good connections. So, maybe you don't hear much about the startup world outside the U.S., but I think the startups right now are at a different level here."

December Labs has started working with local startups around the city and has grown to have around 15 engineers and designers working for the company.

Cordini says that their experience working at Station Houston has really broadened their horizons and allowed them to make connections that they wouldn't have made otherwise.

"It's great to have connections, and that's something that I love here in Houston," Cordini says. "People are willing to help each other."

A main goal for December Labs is to help other companies succeed through their mission-driven, people-focused work. But they're focused on the future.

"We've been growing like crazy over the past year," Cordini says. "We would love to keep growing here in Houston by getting more clients and helping more startups and corporations. Our idea is to continue our expansion here in Houston and all around Texas, for sure."

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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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.