In the latest round up of Houston innovation news you may have missed, student startups selected for a summer program, Texas might be among the best states for nurses, and more. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

It's been a busy season for the Houston innovation ecosystem, and for this reason, local startup and tech news may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a software startup is focusing on diversity and inclusion, an angel network has a new partner organization, a Houston innovator is playing a major role in ESG, and more.

GoCo hosts its first-ever DEI Hackathon

GoCo is hosting its first hackathon. Photo via Getty Images

GoCo.io, a Houston-based human resources software-as-a-service company, is hosting its first hackathon for diversity, equity, and inclusion begining today, May 6, and continuing through tomorrow, May 7.

GoCo's entire staff is going to work for over 36 hours to build solutions aimed at promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion for small businesses.

"Building technology to help HR make a difference in the workplace is what we're all about at GoCo," says Allie Collins, head of GoCo's DEI Task Force, in a news release. "HR professionals are being called upon to make profound and meaningful changes to combat racism and inequities. We're hosting this event because our whole team is passionate about creating apps and resources to facilitate that change."

The competitors will be on teams and will present their projects on Monday, May 10, for a panel of judges.

Rice Alliance backs diversity-focused angel investment network

Maria Maso, CEO of baMa, has announced Rice Alliance as a partner organization. Photo courtesy of Nijalon Dunn

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has become a baMa champion of diversity for angel network baMa, or the Business Angel Minority Association.

"Rice Alliance aims to foster an innovative and entrepreneurial culture that not only values differences, but also elevates them as sources of strength and innovation," says Rice Alliance's managing director, Brad Burke, in a news release.

According to the release, baMa will help to introduce Rice to more diverse businesses. The angel network has already tapped into Rice's ecosystem with the $50,000 investment prize baMa awarded during the Rice Business Plan Competition in March.

"Diversity and education go hand by hand so counting with the support of Rice Alliance is a huge step in order to accomplish baMa's goal: close the investment gap in minority-led startups," says baMa CEO, Maria Maso.

Topl named to ESG council

Kim Raath will serve on CNBC's ESG Council. Photo courtesy of Topl

Kim Raath, CEO of Houston-based blockchain company, Topl, has announced that she has been invited to join the CNBC's ESG Council. She was selected among execs from large corporations like companies such as The HEINEKEN Company, Nestlé, IHG Hotels & Resorts, Nissan Motor Corporation, Bain & Company, Credit Suisse, and more.

"As a young startup, this is one of our most exciting milestones. Sitting at the table with industry leaders is great momentum for both Topl's success and our larger ESG mission," Raath writes in Topl's newsletter. "Traceable transparency in supply chains is a game changer for global commerce, and now Topl can learn from and collaborate with multinational corporations. This opportunity will help position our purpose-built blockchain as a solution to solve some of the biggest and most critical problems our world faces, and as we strive to build a more sustainable future for all."

The council is a roundtable of 30 business leaders across industries focused on the challenges posed by sustainability — and the strategies needed to overcome them, according to Raath.

Is Texas a good state for nurses?

A new report ranks states based on their opportunities and friendly environment for nurses. Photo via Getty Images

The Lone Star State's nursing industry was put to the test for a new report from WalletHub, a personal financial website. The study compared all 50 states based on opportunity and competition and work environment. Texas ranked No. 12 overall.

Ranked solely on opportunity and competition — which included evaluating salary, schools, nurses per 1,000 residents, and more — Texas came in at No. 11.

The top states on the list were Arizona, Washington, and Nevada, respectively.

Rice University announces OwlSpark's ninth cohort

Meet the 10 student startups that are joining the OwlSpark family this summer. Photo courtesy of OwlSpark

Rice University's student startup accelerator has named 10 startup teams to its ninth cohort, which kicks off later this month. OwlSpark's 2021 cohort includes teams from across industries — hospitality, sports, oil and gas, consumer, staffing, automotive and more. According to a release from Rice, these are the companies selected:

  • Capybara - a networked platform that facilitates the company-to-company transfer of IT employees with similar skill sets (for example, software developers)
  • ChckMate – a data-driven platform designed to improve customer dining experiences, drive loyalty and increase revenue
  • GatherX Analytics – an AI software platform that predicts location and quantity of hydrocarbon liquid dropout for use by the upstream oil and gas industry
  • HARK – an easy-to-use app designed to significantly enhance the way in which neurodivergent or cognitively impaired individuals communicate real-time with caregivers and loved ones
  • Home Maintainer - a comprehensive solution for homeowners to manage and simplify home maintenance and efficiency
  • OneLab - a robust cloud-based repository designed for effective organization and easy access to a body of data on a specific area of research
  • Oversox– waterproof, durable, sock-like coverings designed to easily slip over the outside of a shoe for use by the serious hiker
  • rutd – an enterprise software and mobile application that provides immediate, actionable, suicide prevention resources to military veterans and family members
  • Tailer – a training platform and sales tool for electric vehicle dealerships and sales personnel
  • Yellow Saffron Labs – a risk analysis platform that gathers datasets from peer-reviewed scientific publications for use by organizations to observe industry trends or upcoming scientific disruptions or discoveries

Here's who won big for Houston innovation. Photos courtesy

Houston Exponential names winners of inaugural innovation awards

And the winner is...

In a virtual awards program, Houston Exponential has revealed the winners of the inaugural Listies awards.

The Listies, brought to you by Houston Exponential in partnership with InnovationMap, named the winning companies and people across 12 awards on November 20 at 3 pm as a part of Impact Hub's annual The Houston Innovation Summit (THIS).

Nominations were open until Friday, November 6, and then a group of judges made up of members of the Houston innovation ecosystem reviewed the submissions to settle on the 38 finalists. Click here to see the finalists.

Here's who took home the big wins.

SDO Superstar: MassChallenge Texas

Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

A startup development organization can be an accelerator program, an incubator, or a coworking space — and organizations falling into all three of these sectors were nominated for this category. MassChallenge Texas, which has been running its non-equity, general accelerator program in Houston for two years, stood out to judges to take the win for the SDO Superstar category.

Individual Contributor: Slawek Omylski of SecurityGate

Photo via LinkedIn

The individual contributor award was meant to find and recognize a non-founder who was essential to the success of a Houston startup, and that's exactly how SecurityGate's team sees Slawek Omylski, director of engineering. Not only has he been essential from the start over three years ago when he joined as employee No. 4, but Omylski, when unexpectedly having to move back home to Italy, never missed a single meeting or tech deployment despite being an ocean away from the rest of his team. Known as "Suave" by his teammates, his nominators say Omylski is usually the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave.

Civic Innovation: Annapurna Solutions

Image viaannapurnasolutions.org

Everyone knows that the key to sustainability is reducing, reusing, and recycling, but the fact of the matter is no one has quite perfected recycling. Houston-based Annapurna Solutions is stepping in to help. The company provides innovative technology solutions to address waste and recycling challenges, helping to make cities smart and sustainable — like the company's ReciklApp.

Welcome to Houston: Greentown Labs

Photo via greentownlabs.com

Greentown Labs is a startup development organization, but it's are also a startup itself, but when it opens its doors in Houston in the spring, the organization isn't starting from scratch. After years of working with over 200 climatech companies in the Boston area, Greentown's expansion into Houston means incubating Houston energy tech companies and furthering the conversation and activation within the energy transition.

Investor of the Year: Integr8d Capital

Photo via TMC.edu

John "J.R." Reale has been a well respected mentor, entrepreneur, and investor in Houston for years. His firm Integr8d Capital has invested in several Houston companies, including Liongard from seed stage to series A and series B. Reale is also the entrepreneur in residence for the TMC Innovation Institute.

Corporate Innovator: Houston Methodist

Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

Houston Methodist and its Center for Innovation led by Roberta Schwartz is leading health tech innovation in Houston. In January, the hospital opened its Technology Hub, 3,500-square-foot space renovated from a former 18-room patient wing to showcase and test new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, and more. Additionally, the hub helped with the training of dozens of doctors with the rise of telemedicine during COVID-19.

Outstanding Leadership: Grace Rodriguez

Photo courtesy of Grace Rodriguez

Grace Rodriguez's career spans industry and time, but her leadership has been consistent throughout. She currently serves Impact Hub Houston as CEO and executive director. Her nominator calls her an inspiration and someone who "shows up," clearly loving everything she does and is responsible. During COVID-19, she's gone above and beyond to provide resources and information to everyone who needs it, including launching a fund to help pay for meals for health care workers and first responders. The LIFE Fund raised over $20,000.

COVID Phoenix: Luminare

Image via luminaremed.com

Originally founded by Dr. Sarma Velamuri to treat and fight sepsis, Luminare took its sepsis platform and pivoted it to created a COVID self-assessment and testing tool. Their digital platform directed 5.5 million people to COVID-19 testing sites in just 21 days, according to its nomination. The tool was used by Harris County and several other entities.

DEI Champion: Maria Maso

Photo courtesy of Nijalon Dunn

Maria Maso is looking out for minorities when it comes to investment. As the founder and CEO of the Business Angel Minority Association (baMa) — an Angel Association aimed at bridging minority-founded startups with accesses to capital — Maria has been a champion for diversity. She also has helped to educate and activate 40 diverse investors through baMa's Diversity Investor Academy, according to her nomination.

Mentor of the Year: Landi Spearman

Photo via LinkedIn

Landi Spearman's approach to mentorship, according to her nominee, is to mentor the full person — from professional to personal life — through Organized SHIFT, which focuses on helping highly productive leaders, individuals and organizations in their quest to sustain positive growth internally and externally. She also supports entrepreneurs though The Ion, Station Houston, General Assembly, the National Urban League, Power to Fly, Black Women in Science and Engineering, the Greater Houston Partnership, the Greater Houston Black Chamber, Pink Petro, and more.

People's Choice and Soonicorn: Liongard

Photos via LinkedIn

People's Choice was based off how many nominations the startups received, and Liongard was a clear winner. The company, which also won in the Soonicorn category, has experienced major growth and, as the nominations read, that's to both Joe Alapat and Vincent Tran, co-founders, credit. The company has raised $12 million to date — the most recent round, a $10 million Series A — closed this year.

Houston Exponential has announced the 38 finalists for the inaugural Listies Awards. Photo via Getty Images

Exclusive: HX names finalists for inaugural Houston innovation awards

the listies go to...

Ever wonder what Houston startups and innovators are the best of the best? Here's your chance to figure it out. The inaugural Listies awards program has named its finalists.

The Listies, brought to you by Houston Exponential in partnership with InnovationMap, will name the winning companies and people across 12 awards on November 20 at 3 pm at a virtual event as a part of Impact Hub's annual The Houston Innovation Summit (THIS). Click here to register for the free event.

Nominations were open until Friday, November 6, and then a group of judges made up of members of the Houston innovation ecosystem reviewed the submissions to settle on the finalists. Below, in alphabetical order, the 38 finalists are listed for each category.

DEI champion

  • Heath Butler
  • Maria Maso
  • Grace Rodriguez

Individual contributor

  • Michael Matthews
  • Slawek Omylski
  • Brad True

Mentor of the year

  • Keith Kreuer
  • Wade Pinder
  • Landi Spearman

Outstanding leadership

  • Stephanie Campbell
  • Grace Rodriguez
  • Roberta Schwartz

Corporate innovation

  • Chevron Technology Ventures
  • Houston Methodist
  • Shell Ventures

Investor of the year

  • CSL Capital Management
  • Golden Section VC (GSTVC)
  • Integr8d Capital

SDO superstar

  • MassChallenge Houston
  • Rice Alliance
  • TMCx

Welcome to Houston

  • Greentown Labs
  • TestCard
  • Win-Win

Civic engagement

  • Annapurna
  • Luminare
  • McMac Cx

COVID pivot/phoenix

  • Luminare
  • re:3D
  • sEATz

People choice

  • INK
  • Liongard
  • Luminare
  • re:3D
  • Topl

Soonicorn

  • GoExpedi
  • Liongard
  • Medical Informatics Corp.
This week's innovators to know are Debbie Mercer, Andrew Bruce, and Maria Maso. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

While headlines about coronavirus keep multiplying — similar to the virus' cases, Houston's innovation news hasn't yet slowed.

This week's people to know include a female entrepreneur who's leveling the playing field for outdoorsy women, a blockchain expert with new growth, and an investor creating the angel network she's been wanting for years.

Debbie Mercer, founder of Zip Hers

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Debbie Mercer, a Houston entrepreneur, has designed articles of clothing to empower female athletes. The marathon runner was tired of seeing female runners standing in long lines, awaiting their turns to do their business behind closed doors, while their male friends resorted to quickly and discreetly ducking behind the porta-potties, or finding nearby trees. Precious time ticked by as the women watched their male counterparts continue the race.

The Houstonian created Zip Hers, an activewear brand that has a full-length zipper lining the bikini area of each pant, to accommodate on-the-go women. The Zip Hers concept and design was intended to level the playing field for women and men when it comes to competitive sports.

"If we're wasting time on a bathroom break and they're not, that holds us back…Maybe it's our little tiny contribution to women's equality. We just really want to help women be the best that they can be," Mercer says. Click here to read more.

Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo Corp.

Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

For the fist time, Data Gumbo Corp.'s GumboNet will be used in geothermal energy drilling thanks to the startup's new Indonesia-based client, Air Drilling Associates, a drilling and project management service provider.

"Expansion into Southeast Asia with ADA's deployment signals GumboNet's global applicability and benefit to industry — in this case, geothermal energy development," says Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "We are excited that Data Gumbo is entering yet another sector of the energy market for improvements across its supply chain." Click here to read more.

Maria Maso, founder of Business Angel Minority Association

Photo courtesy of Nijalon Dunn

Maria Maso, frustrated with her investment opportunities in Houston, has launched the Business Angel Minority Association, or baMa, to gather established or brand new angel investors to move the needle on investments into minority-founded startups. Maso, founder and CEO, and Garaizar, president, want to round up 100 investors by the end of 2020. And they want these investors to write checks.

"We are not a networking organization. We are an investment organization. We are expecting at some point that you are writing a check to a startup," Maso says. "If we are doing our job properly and we are showing you the right startups, you should be able to make a check at some point." Click here to read more.

The Business Angel Minority Association launched at a breakfast event during Houston Tech Rodeo. Photo by Nijalon Dunn

Houston investors create angel network focused on minorities

money on minorities

Maria Maso was frustrated with her investment opportunities in Houston. So, she's doing something about it.

Maso has launched the Business Angel Minority Association, or baMa, to gather established or brand new angel investors to move the needle on investments into minority-founded startups. The organization, which launched at a breakfast event at Amegy Bank's Cannon Tower during the Houston Tech Rodeo week, is now seeking investor members.

A native of Barcelona, Maso moved to Houston around seven years ago and started investing in startups a few years later. She tapped into a local organization, but didn't have a positive experience.

"I joined an organization in town, and I started to see deals. But I never made an investment in those deals. I faced two issues: They weren't inclusive enough and no one was telling me how to invest," Maso says.

She joined other angel groups around the world, wrote a lot of checks, and still was frustrated with what was available in Houston. She reached a breaking point in October and her friend and colleague, Juliana Garaizar, told her, "If you don't like it, change it."

So, baMa was born and has launched with lofty goals. Maso, founder and CEO, and Garaizar, president, want to round up 100 investors by the end of 2020. And they want these investors to write checks.

"We are not a networking organization. We are an investment organization. We are expecting at some point that you are writing a check to a startup," Maso tells the crowd. "If we are doing our job properly and we are showing you the right startups, you should be able to make a check at some point."

The organization's members will see deal flow and regular pitches and programming. At the launch event, three Houston companies — Kanthaka, on-demand personal training app, Security Gate, cybersecurity startup, and Pantheon, wellness program app — pitched to the room.

"This is a great opportunity — this is not impact investing or doing the right thing," Garaizar says. "This is actually going to generate money. Investing in diversity gives a 35 percent more ROI to investors."

BaMa already has plans to grow, Maso says. The organization will have a national presence with multiple chapters across the country.

"We are already discussing with Boston, Miami, and Palo Alto," says Maso. "We don't have an agreement yet, but my plan is by the end of the year open the second chapter."

But starting in Houston was intentional. There's so much untapped potential in Houston — money wise and in terms of startups.

"We are in Houston, the most diverse city in the U.S., and still our investment community doesn't look like our entrepreneurship community," Garaizar says. "The only way we are going to bridge this gap is if our investment community starts looking more like the entrepreneurship community."

For Carolyn Rodz, founder of Houston-based Alice and baMa partner, she's tired of hearing about the lack of minority investors and diversity of investments. This organization is about making a move.

"We've had enough talk with all these issues — how do we actually take the actions to move this forward," Rodz says. "I'm tired of hearing the same story year after year, and every time I hear the statistics, I roll my eyes. We know the story. We've heard it. Let's actually do something to change it."

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Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.