Houston Methodist received millions in donations to support cancer patients. Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

A $25 million gift will support expansion of research conducted at the Houston Methodist Cancer Center and may help the center earn top-tier federal designation.

In honor of the $25 million donation from Dr. Mary Neal and husband Ron Neal, the cancer center is being renamed the Houston Methodist Dr. Mary and Ron Neal Cancer Center. The hospital system will raise an additional $12 million in matching funds, bringing the total to $37 million.

Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist, says the Bellaire couple's gift "plays an important role in advancing our leading medicine mission and bringing potentially life-saving cancer treatments to more patients throughout Houston and the nation."

Mary Neal, previously in private practice as an obstetrician-gynecologist, is now a part-time volunteer physician at Houston Methodist's San Jose Clinic. Ron Neal is co-founder and co-owner of offshore development company Houston Energy. He also is CEO of Houston-based HEQ Deepwater, a more than $400 million venture formed earlier this year by Houston Energy and Houston-based private equity firm Quantum Energy Partners to buy deepwater assets in the Gulf of Mexico.

With the donation from Dr. Mary Neal and husband Ron Neal, the cancer center is being renamed the Houston Methodist Dr. Mary and Ron Neal Cancer Center. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

The Neals' donation will boost ongoing research led by Dr. Jenny Chang, director of the cancer center and Emily Herrmann Presidential Distinguished Chair in Cancer Research. Chang's research has advanced cancer therapy with breakthroughs such as targeted drugs for treatment of breast cancer.

Mary Neal says she and her husband believe their contribution "will further advance pivotal and innovative research beyond chemotherapy and radiation."

The gift also will fund and retain three endowed chairs and complementary funding for early stage research and therapies, support recruitment and fellowship training, and expand clinical trials at all of the community hospitals within Houston Methodist. Part of the gift is dedicated to cancer innovation efforts within the Center for Drug Repositioning and Development.

"Our vision for the Dr. Mary and Ron Neal Cancer Center is to grow our network of cancer physicians offering comprehensive care with the latest technologies and clinical trials so that patients across the region have the best access to cancer care," Chang says. "While the gift from the Neal family will have direct impact for patients at the community level in areas that are often deserts for cancer care, my hope is that it will also propel our ongoing research and work to the national level toward NCI designation."

Cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) meet rigorous standards for research and clinical care. The Neals' gift is aimed at elevating research done at the cancer center and helping retain talent to accelerate Houston Methodist's pursuit of NCI designation.

Texas is home to four NCI-designated cancer centers:

  • Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine.
  • University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, also in Houston.
  • Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
  • Mays Cancer Center at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

NCI designation represents "the highest federal rating a cancer center can achieve," according to the University of Chicago's NCI-designated cancer center. "It's the gold standard for cancer programs, and is bestowed upon the nation's top cancer centers in recognition of their innovative research and leading-edge treatments."

This designation can lead to benefits such as more research grants, quicker access to clinical trials for cancer treatments, and stepped-up recruitment of high-profile cancer researchers.

"At any given time, hundreds of research studies are under way at the cancer centers, ranging from basic laboratory research to clinical assessments of new treatments," the NCI says. "Many of these studies are collaborative and may involve several cancer centers, as well as other partners in industry and the community."

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Houston sustainability-focused company raises $50 million to plant new indoor farming facility

seeing green

Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

The new facility, which will be built in Southwest Houston, is scheduled for completion in January 2023. Dream Harvest’s existing 7,500-square-foot facility in Southwest Houston supplies 45 Whole Foods stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as Sweetgreen restaurants in Texas.

The company currently employs 25 people. With the addition of the 100,000-square-foot facility, Dream Harvest’s headcount will rise to 65.

Dream Harvest relies on wind-powered, year-round indoor vertical farming to generate 400 times the yield of an outdoor farm while using 95 percent less water and no pesticides.

“Because the vast majority of America’s produce is grown in California and has to be shipped over long distances, most of the country receives produce that is old, has a poor flavor profile, and a short shelf life — a major contributing factor to the more than 30 percent of fresh vegetables being discarded in the U.S. each year,” Dream Harvest says in a December 7 news release.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.”

Dream Harvest expects to expand distribution to more than 250 retail locations in 2022.

“Orion’s focus on sustainable infrastructure and deep experience in building large industrial facilities will be complementary to Dream Harvest’s impressive track record of being a reliable supplier to high-caliber customers by achieving consistent yields, food safety, and operational efficiencies … ,” says Nazar Massouh, co-managing partner and CEO of Orion Energy Partners, which has offices in Houston and New York City.

Other companies in the Orion Energy Partners portfolio include Houston-based Caliche Development Partners, Tomball-based Python Holdings, The Woodlands-based Evolution Well Services, Houston-based Produced Water Transfer, and Houston-based Tiger Rentals.

Zain Shauk is the co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Exclusive: Houston logistics SaaS startup raises $2.5M seed round

money moves

A Houston company that's providing software solutions for middle-mile logistics challenges has raised fresh funding.

Velostics Inc., which has an enterprise software-as-a-service model that specializes in automating inbound logistics at industrial facilities — like terminals and warehouses — announced it has raised $2.5 million. The seed round was led by Kansas-based Flyover Capital with participation from Small Ventures USA, Cultivation Capital, Starboard Star, Congress Avenue Ventures and BioUrja Ventures.

Founded by Gaurav Khandewal, Velostics targets the $37 billion inbound logistics management market, a so-called "log jam" for businesses that the company's software strives to make flow a lot more optimally.

“Flyover is incredibly excited to support the Velostics team in their mission to transform inbound logistics,” says Keith Molzer, managing partner at Flyover Capital. “This segment of the supply chain is ripe for better technology to address challenges of congestion, driver labor shortages, and the growing demands of ecommerce. Gaurav and team are an exceptional group of entrepreneurs ready to drive efficiency and a better customer experience at industrial facilities.”

The fresh funding will go toward recruiting top talent for Velostics's team, particularly in its account management, inside sales, and marketing departments, as well as continuing to develop the AI-driven product, which has an impact for both its users and the environment.

“Idling trucks waiting outside facilities emit over 42 million tons of CO2 annually — eight times the US national average. By orchestrating the movement of trucks in and out of facilities, not only do we provide tremendous supply chain benefits, we also help the environment," Khandewal says in the release. "We’re excited to partner with our customers and our investors to solve global congestion.”

Flyover Capital was founded in 2014 and has a keen interest in the Houston market, Dan Kerr, principal at the firm, previously told InnovationMap.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr said in May of last year. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

In September, Khandewal joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and discussed how he has been a champion of Houston innovation since he started ChaiOne in 2009. He shared how he thinks the city has a great opportunity to be a leader in logistics technology.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says on the show.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne and Velostics Gaurav Khandelwal is the CEO and founder of Velostics. Photo courtesy

Houston VC-backed tech founder on reinventing a sales team and supporting financial independence

Houston innovators podcast episode 112

Four years ago, Samantha Ettus found herself as a keynote speaker in a room with thousands of ambitious and talented women. It was a conference for multi-level marketing sales associates and, as Ettus found out later, most of them — despite their talent and passion — were losing money on whatever product they were selling.

"I realized there was a problem. There obviously was a need — all of these people want to be doing something outside of their families that gives them fulfillment and meaning and has goals associated with it — but they also want to be earning money," Ettus says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And the first part was being fulfilled — but the second part wasn't."

Ettus created an alternative to check both of those boxes. Park Place Payments is a fintech startup founded in 2018 in California. Houston was one of the initial six test market for the business model, and the company now has over 1,000 account executives across all 50 states. Sales team members are trained for free on how to sell Park Place's payment processor service to local businesses.

Ettus says the payment processor industry is competitive and most small business owners are very disappointed with the customer service they receive. The average business changes payment processors every three years, Ettus says, and Park Place wants to change that.

"Payments is an industry where something always goes wrong," Ettus says. "As a small business owner, if you can't reach someone — that's really important for the livelihood of your business. ... We really think of ourselves as an outsourced payment partner for small businesses."

This past year has been one for growth for Park Place, Ettus says, and earlier this year, she closed on the company's seed round, which was supported by Curate Capital, founded by Houstonian Carrie Colbert. Now the company is focused on its tech team, including hiring a CTO. Early next year, Ettus hopes to close a Series A round, again with support — financially and otherwise — from Colbert.

"I feel so lucky because a lot of people pointed us to traditional Silicon Valley VCs in the beginning, and I had a lot of conversations. I didn't feel some of those firms had the patience to grow with us," Ettus says.

The company has been tied to Houston from its early days, from testing the business in town to a Houston-based early hire, Nancy Decker Lent, who is a founding member of the team and head of product for Park Place.

Ettus shares more on her passion for supporting financial independence for women and how she plans to grow her company on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.