In honor of Labor Day, here are three Houston innovators who probably aren't taking the day off. Courtesy photos

It may be Labor Day, but some of the hardest working Houston innovators are probably still checking their email on their phones from the pool.

Here are this week's innovators to know around town.

Marie Myers, CFO of UiPath

Marie Myers is the CFO of UiPath. Courtesy of UiPath

Marie Myers is a self-proclaimed Houstonian, avid bike rider, and robotics nerd — for lack of a better word. She's had a 20-year career in tech — most roles based right here in town — and throughout her whole experience, robotics process automation has been the most exciting technology she's gotten to work with.

UiPath just opened an office in Houston earlier this year, and Myers serves the company as CFO. She first worked with UiPath on the client side of things, and the technology awed her. She says she jumped at the opportunity to join the organization.

"When I think about RPA, the world lights up for me," she says. "It's truly transformative."

Click here to read more about the company.

Marco Bo Hansen, chief customer officer at Sani nudge and his executive team

Marco Bo Hansen, right, the chief customer officer at Sani nudge. Courtesy of TMCx

The Sani nudge executives may not be from Houston, but we give the Denmark-based company a pass for all its success coming out of the Texas Medical Center's accelerator program earlier this year. Sani nudge is a medical device company that can better track and encourage hand sanitation. The company is headed to California after being selected for a prestigious program with the Mistletoe Foundation.

Dr. Marco Bo Hansen is the chief customer officer and says that he'll be vigilantly advocating that his Sani nudge colleagues and the Mistletoe researchers keep hospital patients and staff in mind as Sani nudge moves forward with its innovations.

"We have to make sure that our solutions always generate value to the end users and can easily be used by the clinicians, infection preventionists, and hospital managers," he says.

Click here to read more about the company.

Ashley Gilmore, CEO and co-founder of Tracts.co

When Ashley Gilmore was studying law — specifically for the purposes of going into oil and gas — it amazed him how non-digitized the industry was, especially the mineral buying process. Gilmore figured out a way how to use tech to make the process way easier — and cheaper.

Now, his company, Tracts, has a new land group that's growing at a revenue rate of 30 percent month to month. With more and more clients, Tracts engages more data. And, with more and more data, the product increases in value for his customers.

"For some of our clients, Tracts is now existential for their business," Gilmore says. "In other words, they wouldn't be able to operate on their current business model without Tracts."

Click here to read more about the company.

Marie Myers is the CFO of UiPath and is based in the company's new Houston office. Courtesy of UiPath

Robotics exec talks plans for new Houston office and the future of automation

robot revolution

It's safe to say that Marie Myers — CFO of UiPath, which opened its 71-person office in Houston earlier this year — loves her job.

The robotics process automation company, which was founded in Romania before moving its headquarters to New York City last year, is in major growth mode. At the helm of the financial side of things is Myers, who has over 20 years of experience in technology.

When Myers was working on a spinoff project for HP, she started seeing the difference software automation makes on a company's bottom line.

"I realized RPA was the fastest way to drive efficiencies, so I started building bots," she tells InnovationMap. "During that time, I came across UiPath and I saw how impressive their technology was. In my more than two-decade career, I hadn't really come across a technology that I felt that had such an impressive impact in such a short time."

She drank the UiPath Kool-Aid, and when the company came to her adopted hometown of Houston to open an office to be its central, Midwestern location, she leapt at the opportunity to join the team. Now, with several months under her belt in the position and a growing office, Myers speaks with InnovationMap about the company's growth and the revolution that RPA is having in business.

InnovationMap: You've been in your role since January, but you've been in tech for a while now. How has the transition been for you?

Marie Myers: This has been one of the most exciting times for my career. I've been in tech for about two decades. I started with Compaq — quite an incredible company that started right here in Texas. It was a very famous startup in its own time, and I had a chance to be a part of that wave, which was really incredible. Then, it got bought out by HP, and then I pivoted and spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley for a couple decades.

I got involved in robotics process automation quite by happenstance about four years ago when HP decided to split. I was involved in setting up a company from the finance and legal perspective. I got challenged to drive some cost efficiency, so I turned to RPA as a means to drive some of that impact within my own organization of a couple thousand folks.

When the opportunity came up to be CFO for UiPath, I really jumped at it because it filled two important things for me. I wanted to be a leader of a finance organization and team. Secondly, I wanted to do something where I was really passionate about the technology. When I think about RPA, the world lights up for me. It's truly transformative.

IM: How did UiPath decide to open a Houston office? What made the city a key market?

MM: Houston — particularly Texas — are both important for us, from a customer perspective. We have some of our larger companies in the country here in Texas, so it was a natural place to look to build capability. Secondly, we're impressed with the overall quality of the market and the availability of different skills here as we build out our company.

IM: What are some goals UiPath has for its new Houston office?

MM: Overall, one of the key goals is to establish a strong Midwest presence for the company. Texas is an ideal location if you think about it for customers that range from the East to the West. Being in the middle is a good, central location. Also, as we grow and expand in Latin America, it's another interesting spot for us. So, one, to ensure that we are able to support the growth needs of the company throughout the United States and leverage the strategic location that Texas has.

I think the other goal is to build some of the core skills we need for the overall organization as we grow in the United States. UiPath is a relatively new player in the U.S., only been here a couple of years.

Finally, we've got terrific customers here, so what's important is to continue to support and nurture those customers. We have a big presence in oil and gas and the support companies within energy.

IM: Tell me about the Academic Alliance and how the company engages with students.

MM: Basically, we offer free training to the universities so that students can get first-hand experience for robotics process automation, which is part of our broader commitment we've made to ensure RBA is available in an open, democratized way.

We are big proponents of supporting students, and we had a great intern program this last summer. We had a double-digit number of interns — I think the largest population in the U.S. We love the fact that we have this access to universities that we can easily tap into.

Just a couple weeks ago we ran UiPath's first-ever hackathon for students in the United States. We had over 50 participants.

We're really excited about building out the ecosystem with the universities and the students here in Houston.

IM: What sort of misconceptions do you encounter within automation?

MM: First and foremost, a lot of it is misconceptions about RPA replacing jobs. I'd say it's a shift in the workforce — I witness this first hand because I had a team where we implemented and built bots. What happens is you create capacity and end up creating new jobs. You have roles of managing bots, bot controllers, bot librarians — these are roles that fundamentally didn't exist five years ago.

IM: What advice do you have for women in tech?

MM: I think it's so critical for women to be in the driving seat and in the forefront of technology. I have two daughters and I'm adamant about how they are exposed to robotics. I did a coffee talk in Houston not too long ago, and I really challenged the women to get out there and get digitally literate. It's really important as women that we don't let ourselves fall behind on technology and how they are impacting both our work and our families. So, staying informed, no matter how you do that — reading, podcasts, news. Another way is to join and network with associations. Myself and another woman important in this space are looking to create a network for women in automation. We want to build a group that will allow women to look for jobs, board roles, mentors, etc. in this industry.

IM: What role do you see Houston playing in the greater innovation conversation and where does the city have room to improve?

​MM: I'm a big fan of Houston. I'm Australian, but I feel like a Texas implant now. It's an incredibly diverse city, and I think that's one of its greatest strengths. You've got people from all walks of life from all parts of the world and a great education system. That creates a really unique backdrop for the technology-led era we're in. The historical strengths of the city have been predicated on the healthy oil and gas sector and medical sector — both are important industries going through major technology transformations. I think for Houston being able to capitalize on all that is a very unique opportunity. It will position Houston very well for the future. You've got the right ingredients here.

Where the city is going to have to continue to build is specifically around some of these skills for the future. Artificial intelligence and having that depth of experience is an area the city struggles in. Certainly other cities like Seattle and San Francisco have tens of years of experience from companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon that have been able to build deep AI. In Houston, that skillset is going to come more from oil and gas, where they've been building some of those skills, just not in the same breath and not in the same depth as those other cities. I think the real opportunity is to nourish and nurture this in the academic institutions and then take that talent out of the academic institutions and integrate them into the corporations.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

UiPath's Houston office is in a historic downtown Houston building that's been renovated. Courtesy of Main&Co

Global automation company doubles down on Houston as it grows its United States presence

New bot on the block

When UiPath decided to look into an office in Houston, it was a bit of a gamble, since Houston's not particularly known for its wealth of hardware talent.

"We did a little bit of an experiment to see what the skills would be like specifically in a Houston office," Marie Myers, CFO of the company and based in Houston, tells InnovationMap. "As a robotics company, we weren't sure if we'd get more of those software skills. It's not a natural market for those skills."

But Houston — and Texas in general — is a great location for the robotics process automation company, Myers says. It's central and optimal for customer acquisition. Valued at $7 billion, UiPath has over 2,500 customers — adding six more a day on average, according to a news release.

Since beginning Houston operations in January, Myers says she's very pleased with the 71-person team the company has assembled locally, and the company has even expanded in that short time. Following a $568 million Series D round closing, the company almost doubled its office size.

"The Series D is critical for us as we continue to grow and we're using those proceeds to grow our base across the world, and obviously part of the Houston expansion has been just that," Myers says.

UiPath plans to really settle into Houston and even bring a an RPA Immersion Lab into its Houston office. The lab would allow for potential customers to try out the technology and run simulations. The lab is on the docket for 2020, Myers says.

Another way UiPath is engaging with the Houston community is through its connection to students and universities. The company has an arrangement with six universities in Houston and is even located just across the street from the University of Houston-Downtown. Myers says the company had one of its largest group of interns working in Houston.

"It's going to be so important for students graduating to have experience in up-and-coming technologies, like RPA," Meyers says. "We see such great support from the local universities."

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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.