This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Jason Bock of CTMC, Barbara Burger, and Mario Amaro of Ease. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from cell therapy to energy transition — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jason Bock, founder and CEO of CTMC

Jason Bock, founder and CEO of the Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to explain the complicated — yet necessary — process of scaling cell therapies. Photo courtesy

Last year, a project out of MD Anderson spun out to create a new joint venture, CTMC — Cell Therapy Manufacturing Center, with National Resilience, a company that was founded to help advance life-saving therapeutics. The JV is based in the Texas Medical Center and led by CEO Jason Bock, who says the entity's location is critical.

"Houston has a chance to play a role in all aspects of cell therapy," he says, from discovery to the clinical side. "Some really interesting cell therapies that are in development were discovered here in Houston."

Bock shares more on how the impact CTMC is making on cell therapy advancement on the podcast. Read more.

Barbara J. Burger, startup adviser and mentor 

Energy innovation expert, Barbara Burger, shares how she sees the future of energy playing out as a dance between mice — the startups — and elephants — the incumbent corporations. Photo courtesy

The way Barbara Burger sees it, the energy transition depends on a dance between startups, or the mice, and corporates, aka the elephants. In a guest column for InnovationMap, she explains what questions each side needs to address.

"There are lots of questions here and the why is often an iterative journey for both sides," she explains. "It is as much mindset, influence, strategy, champions, and risk tolerance at individual levels as it about technology and economics." Read more.

Mario Amaro, CEO and founder of Ease

Mario Amaro, founder of Ease, was selected for one of Amazon's accelerator programs. Photo courtesy of Amazon

Amazon's AWS Impact Accelerator Latino Founders Cohort named the 20 startups joining its accelerator that will connect Latinx founders to its network of mentors, provide programming, and even dole out funding.

Houston-based Ease, founded by Mario Amaro in 2018, the health care fintech platform allows for medical professionals to start, grow, and manage their private practices with bookkeeping tools and other software infrastructure. So far, the company has worked with more than 300 practices. Read more.

A Houston company has joined a new Amazon program focused on Latin American founders. Photo courtesy of Amazon

Houston startup named to Amazon's Latinx-focused cohort

ready to grow

Amazon named the 20 startups joining its accelerator that will connect Latinx founders to its network of mentors, provide programming, and even dole out funding.

The AWS Impact Accelerator Latino Founders Cohort is a part of Amazon's $30 million commitment to supporting underrepresented startup founders. The eight-week program started this week in Amazon's Seattle headquarters.

“This cohort of the AWS Impact Accelerator aims to highlight the viability and ingenuity of Latino-led startups, so the VC community can increase support to these founders,” says Howard Wright, vice president and global head of startups at AWS, in the news release. “We’re looking forward to playing an active role in helping these companies turbocharge their growth through access to capital, experts, and all of the innovations that the AWS tech stack has to offer.”

Houston-based Ease, founded by Mario Amaro in 2018, the health care fintech platform allows for medical professionals to start, grow, and manage their private practices with bookkeeping tools and other software infrastructure. So far, the company has worked with more than 300 practices. Per Cruncbase data, the company has raised $2.8 million in pre-seed and grant funding. According to Amazon, the company's investors include Slauson & Co. and Precursor Ventures.

Mario Amaro, founder of Ease, was selected for one of Amazon's accelerator programs. Photo courtesy of Amazon

Last year, Ease was named among the 50 companies in the inaugural cohort of the Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund. In that program, each company received an equity-free $100,000 investment, as well as programming and support from Google, mentorship from technical and business experts, access to free mental health therapy, and more.

Ease stood out among the nearly 1,100 submissions to the program, according to the release, and joins 19 other companies from across the country and even Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. Each of the cohort companies will receive up to $225,000 in cash and AWS Activate credits, alongside a training curriculum, networking opportunities with Amazon staff and potential investors, and ongoing advisory support.

The other startups in the program include:

  • Alvva, a, immigrant-focused fintech platform from California
  • Cogniflow, a personal AI platform founded in Colombia with a New York US HQ
  • Deskfy, a marketing portal from Brazil with its US HQ in Delaware
  • DivySci Software, an edtech organization founded in New York
  • EducUp, an edtech company from Florida
  • Fielder, a Mexico-founded enterprise software-as-a-service with US-based operations in Delaware
  • GamerSafer, a security tech company within gaming from California
  • Kigüi, a Mexican money-saving grocery app
  • Kuentro, a Venezuelan affordable hiring platform that caters to middle- and working-class job seekers
  • Lazo Fintech Inc, a Florida-based fintech and legal platform
  • Leantime, a developer tool from North Carolina
  • Monadd, a Florida-founded personal finance platform
  • PilotoMail, a remote work platform founded in Puerto Rico
  • Sign-Speak, a New York startup with an American Sign Language device
  • STIGMA, a mental health mobile app from Illinois
  • Outtrip, a Argentina-founded tourism platform with US operations in Delaware
  • Panda Salud, a Mexico-based platform connecting health care small businesses with diagnostic test providers
  • Tienditapp, a Mexico-based app with a last-mile delivery model
  • TuCuota, a payment collections tool from Argentina
DocSpace was founded by Chief Product Officer Miles Montes (left) and CEO Mario Amaro, a physician and U.S. Navy Veteran. Photo courtesy of DocSpace

Houston digital health platform raises $1.2M seed round

money moves

A Houston-based software company providing clinicians a turn-key platform for their practice has announced the close of its seed funding round.

DocSpace raised $1.2 million in seed funding led by Slauson & Co. with participation by Precursor Ventures, Acrew Capital's Scout Fund, and SputnikATX Ventures. The company's angel investors Nathan and Sonia Baschez, Nikhil Krishnan, and Eliana Murillo. The company was founded by CEO Mario Amaro, a physician and U.S. Navy Veteran, and Chief Product Officer Miles Montes, an expert in platform product management previously at ADP and ShopLatinx.

"Existing practice management software requires clinicians to manually self-navigate the expensive and complicated business formation process before they're able to utilize any of their product services," says Amaro in a news release. "When you require clinicians to do all the hard work of starting a new business then force them to purchase expensive software, it's no surprise that fewer clinicians have the opportunity to build new businesses in their communities."

Since its launch in March 2020, DocSpace has helped hundreds of clinicians, therapists, dentists, physicians, and optometrists build their practices with its end-to-end software that provides, according to the release, HIPAA-compliant tools like "digital health storefronts with custom themes to back office management tools like scheduling, video conferencing, banking, payroll, and bookkeeping."

"Making it easier for clinicians to start new businesses is critical to decreasing clinician burnout, giving more choices to patients, and reducing the amount of administrative and overhead bloat in delivering health services. We should treat clinicians like entrepreneurs and reduce the barriers to them striking out on their own," says Nikhil Krishnan, the founder of Out-Of-Pocket and adviser and investor to DocSpace.

The seed funding go toward building out DocSpace Pay, a payment system tool for patients and clinicians.

"This is why we were inspired by Shopify's business model and the infrastructure they created to empower retail merchants to be small business owners," says Amaro. "We are building the first clinical practice operating system that provides clinician entrepreneurs the opportunity to seek practice independence, helping them get to market faster, while leveling the playing field so they can compete against large hospital systems and other VC-backed healthcare startups."


Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

------

This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.