This week's innovators to know represents a homecoming, an accelerator launch, and a call for tech education. Courtesy photos

This week's innovators to know span across industries — from sports tech to education, but they are all fighting for something here in Houston. Here's what they are focused on bringing to the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Mike T. Brown, founder of Win-Win

Courtesy of Win-Win

Mike T. Brown decided to move his Silicon Valley sports tech platform that gamifies charitable donations to his hometown of Houston. Win-Win, which launched in 2016 and since raised $1.2 million in funding, is ready to scale and launch full-scale during the 2019 NFL season.

"I couldn't be more excited about returning to Houston to become a part of the city's tech revolution," says Brown in the release. "After visiting The Cannon, I immediately felt the energy and have witnessed their commitment to pushing Houston's tech startup movement. I can't wait to get fully plugged into the city's ecosystem, to start hiring local talent and raising money from local investors." Read more about Brown and Win-Win here.

Yvette Casares Willis, director of strategic partnerships for MassChallenge Texas

Courtesy of MassChallenge Texas

Yvette Casares Willis has been working to put Houston on the map for MassChallenge Texas, and her work is finally coming to fruition. The organization opened applications for its inaugural cohort last week. As excited as she is to work with the cohort, Willis is looking forward to what it means for the program to arrive in Houston and help to connect the dots across the city's innovation ecosystem.

"I'm excited about what Houston has to offer," says Willis, who is the director of partnerships for the organization. "We have everything we could possibly provide in this ecosystem to be amazing, as long as we all work together. If we can all collaborate and if we all have the same mission, we can really make a difference in Houston." Read more about Willis and MassChallenge Texas here.

TeKedra Pierre, internship coordinator at The Village School

Courtesy of The Village School

Tekedra Pierre's job is to help students be aware of real-life needs in the workforce through internship programs. And what's extremely clear to Pierre is the need for more professionals in tech — specifically the cybersecurity space. She wrote a piece for InnovationMap on the subject.

"Employers struggle to keep employees up to speed on the latest technologies and skill sets needed to succeed and thrive in the rapidly changing and evolving business landscape," she writes. "To remain competitive, Houston businesses must attract qualified workers to fill these positions that range from cybersecurity to industrial technology, engineering and medicine. And the earlier we can reach them, the better." Read Pierre's piece here.

Win-Win, a gamified donation platform, is moving to Houston this summer. Photo via Facebook

Silicon Valley-founded sports tech startup relocates to Houston

Homecoming

It's a homecoming of sorts for Mike T. Brown, a professional athlete turned entrepreneur, who is moving his Silicon Valley-founded startup to his hometown of Houston. Win-Win is a tech-enabled platform where fans can donate to their favorite athletes' causes through a gamified donation platform.

The company launched in 2016 and since raised $1.2 million in funding. Win-Win is ready to scale, according to a press release, and launch full-scale during the 2019 NFL season. Currently, the company is accepting investors on a crowdfunding site.

Brown will move his team into The Cannon this summer and enter The Cannon's Venture Studio.

"I couldn't be more excited about returning to Houston to become a part of the city's tech revolution," says Brown in the release. "After visiting The Cannon, I immediately felt the energy and have witnessed their commitment to pushing Houston's tech startup movement. I can't wait to get fully plugged into the city's ecosystem, to start hiring local talent and raising money from local investors."

Brown spent four years in the NFL, and was at one point a linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts. He hung up his helmet in 2013, taught himself to code, and moved to Silicon Valley. He worked as a mid-market growth lead for a $32 million venture-backed startup called Kiip. Growing up in Houston, Brown attended Alief Taylor High School before playing football at Duke University, getting a degree in public policy.

Win-Win is moving to the city at a time when sports startups are thriving, says Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon. Gow is the son of InnovationMap's parent company's CEO. The Cannon is also home to sports tech startup sEATz.

"Houston has long needed better entrepreneurial resources to stop our startups from leaving for greener pastures, and we are excited to be part of the local entrepreneurial growth over the last couple of years, helping to provide a landing spot for a young, growing company like Win-Win," says Gow in the release. "On top of that, Houston is extremely well-positioned to be the home for sports-tech startups, and Mike moving back can be a great catalyst towards continuing to establish our city as a sports-tech hub."

Win-Win is joining fellow sports tech startup sEATz at The Cannon.Courtesy of The Cannon

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Houston startup designs new platform for better navigating health care

patient portal

Taking control of your health can be a difficult path to walk on your own. A new startup, created by eight female Rice University students, is aimed at wading through the health care system.

The Healthcare Navigator is a platform that helps users to learn about not just treatment options, but also the financial bearings thereof.

“About 88 percent of Americans aren’t health literate,” founder and president Kayla Grimes says in a news release. “It’s very hard for them to navigate health care in the way to get the best benefit for it, so what our platform will do is essentially give them the tools and resources to confidently navigate the health care system. We also help with price transparency specifically.”

The multidisciplinary team includes women majoring in pre-med, computer science, medical humanities, art and business. According to Grimes (a rising senior business major), the seed for the idea’s success was planted two years ago when she was volunteering for the National Patient Advocacy Foundation.

“They told me, ‘If you do this right, this could actually change everything in health care,’” she remembers.

Now she and her team have an app, as well as an accessible website, composed of several features all meant to make it easier to save money — and users’ health. The features are:

  • Cost Compass, which compares procedure costs across local hospitals, enabling users to shop around and save money.
  • Care Genius AI, an AI chatbot that helps users to negotiate medical bills and answers health care system questions.
  • Patient Power Modules, which are interactive educational videos that make understanding the health care system easy and engaging.
  • Pocket Doc, which helps consumers find the best providers for them based on location, ratings and quality metrics.
  • Pulse Check Alert keeps users informed on important health care news and patient insights.
  • Care Manager streamlines users’ health care needs and goals in one convenient place.

Grimes says that she hopes that users will skip Google reviews and go straight to their Pocket Doc, which includes information on hospitals, clinics, urgent care centers and freestanding emergency rooms.

“We have that in the system, so that you can actually see useful metrics instead of just going on Google reviews and reading their readmission rate — we’re going to explain what’s a good readmission rate and what’s a bad readmission rate,” she says. “That’s the whole point: We’re not just going to give you these metrics, we’re also going to give you some benchmarks, so you can make the decision for yourself.”

When dealing with your health, knowledge is certainly power, and Healthcare Navigator is bestowing a new kind of power on its users.

Education equity-focused nonprofit taps into robotics, AI to better serve Houston children

the future is bright

Generally, when children are under the age of five, educators believe that they are best suited for and interested in learning, because those are the years in which there is the strongest opportunity to build a broad and solid foundation for lifelong literacy and well-being.

That sentiment is deeply held by Collaborative for Children, the Houston-based nonprofit organization with the mission to meaningfully improve the quality of early childhood education and provide access to cutting-edge technology through its Centers of Excellence to all children, especially those in low-income and marginalized communities.

“The reason the organization was started about 40 years ago is that a group of philanthropists in the greater Houston area suggested that this was so important because 90 percent of the brain develops or grows in the time frame between ages zero to five years of age,” Melanie Johnson, president and CEO of Collaborative for Children, tells InnovationMap.

“And if we were losing children and not preparing them by third grade to be literate, and then subsequently losing them after that for high dropout rates and achievement gaps between poor and affluent children, that this would be the perfect place to start," she continues. "And so, they put the collaborative, the emphasis, and finances collaborative of every, most every early education effort around this region.”

Collaborative for Children’s work in the community is centered around making sure that there is educational equity for all children, regardless of financial status, and providing access to technologies in meaningful ways.

“Ultimately, we want to bridge the digital divide early on so that when children start off their academic journey, they're starting off equipped with the skills to be successful there on,” says Johnson.

Most recently, the institution has focused on utilizing social-emotional learning robots and coding tech toys like the Pepper — the world’s first social humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions — and NAO, which resembles human being and stimulates, robots to enhance learning in the classrooms of its Centers of Excellence.

“Technology enhances the learning experience in the Centers of Excellence in ways that a teacher might not be able to,” says Johnson. “Artificial intelligence is used in gamification to allow a child to play and learn while playing.”

For Collaborative for Children, gamification involves transforming typical academic components into gaming themes.

“While playing, the AI gauges the level of skills that they’ve been able to enter into that system and respond with even more challenging tasks or tasks that are still lateral so that they can continue to repeat that skill,” says Johnson.

The socio-emotional learning robots are indeed fascinating, but how does the nonprofit reach these children, and their parents, who might be skeptical of technology?

Ultimately, through the teachers. They draw them in via the technology. If teachers are excited, they act as a conductor of that energy to their students, making their innovative lessons well, electric.

That resonates with most all children, but especially with those diagnosed with autism.

“Robotics like NAO are great for children on the autism spectrum because they are emotionally sensitive and emotionally intelligent,” says Johnson. “They are low sensory, so as NAO runs around the classroom, it can literally have individual and unique conversations with each child based on facial recognition. But most importantly for me, is that this particular robot is able to evaluate children without statistical bias that a teacher might have.

“A teacher might think that because a child confuses the letter D and B, which are basically shaped the same in opposite directions, that they're not learning," she continues. "And the robot will have no prior knowledge in terms of, is this child the better child, or have they been learning throughout the year? The answers are accurate or inaccurate. So, they remove statistical bias when assessing children in the classroom.”

The misconception about teaching technologies is that it’s about screen time. According to Johnson, it’s not. It’s more about interacting with technology.

“We’ve added, you know, all kinds of modern-day technology so that this world that we're preparing these children for 80 percent of the jobs we don't even know will exist when they are adults,” says Johnson. “So, we're just trying to make sure that there is no divide in terms of 21st century skills and 21st century preparation.”

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Collaborative for Children has so many facets to assist children with their early development, but there are inherent challenges when attempting to reach their target audience in low-income and marginalized communities that the organization counters with programs like the Collab Lab, which is a mobile classroom that brings critical, future-focused early childhood education directly to the community at no cost.

Designed to be convenient for families, Collab Lab connects parents and their youngest children with experts, educators, resources, and proven programs whose goal is to make sure that kids have the skills essential to learning from the moment they walk into kindergarten for the first time.

“There are a myriad of challenges in these communities that we serve, specifically with technology,” says Johnson. “When children enter first grade, and especially second grade, they're given notepads, basically, digital notepads, because it's no good in pre-K oftentimes, but it is very helpful for children who will never have access or have limited access to iPads and things of that nature.

“So while we don't want them to be babysat by screen time and have social media impacting their self-image and self-worth, we definitely want them to have appropriate doses and appropriate uses of technology in the early education, so that those barriers that their parents face with limited means, that these children can go to first grade and into the robotics class and be able to be evaluated and assessed on the digital notepads that are required nowadays,” she continues.

While technology is very important, Collaborative for Children also focuses on the critical social and emotional skills children need as they develop and the all too important relationship between children and their parents and teachers.

“Theory leads our work,” says Johnson. “It's all focused on fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social emotional, can a child build rapport with their teacher and with the students around them. Those things are paramount and will never change.

“What we use technology to do is enhance and remove biases from teacher-pupil interaction, but also to bridge any kind of divide in terms of 21st century skills. And in addition to that, we engage the families. So families who might not know about hydro-fueled cars in those communities that we serve will be able to be exposed to those concepts, as well through our group connections or parent partnerships.”

Ultimately, the last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world.

“At Collaborative for Children,” adds Johnson. “We are continuously pushing the envelope at our Centers for Excellence so that the children that we serve will always be on the cutting edge.

The last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world. Photo courtesy of Collaborative for Children

Houston med school develops revolutionary mRNA vaccine for elephants

zoology biology

An innovative team from Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital has worked with the Houston Zoo to develop a first-of-its-kind treatment for elephants, which has been administered to its first patient.

Tess, the beloved, 40-year-old matriarch of the Houston Zoo’s elephant herd, is recovering well after receiving the first-ever mRNA vaccine against elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) 1A on Tuesday, June 18. The veterinary staff at the Houston Zoo will monitor Tess in the coming weeks to check her reaction and the efficacy of the vaccine.

EEHV 1A is a deadly infection for Asian Elephants. While generally benign in African Elephants, Asian Elephants can develop fatal hemorrhages. The fatality rate is a whopping 80 percent, making it one of the most serous threats to elephant populations outside of humans.

Anti-viral drugs have some effect on the disease, but two-thirds show no improvement. This has led to a search for a vaccine. For 15 years, the Houston Zoo and Dr. Paul Ling at Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Virology and Microbiology have partnered to develop the drug. They have been helped by worldwide research from zoos and animal specialists, as well as graduate student Jessica Watts and Dr. Jeroen Pollet at Houston's Texas Children’s Hospital. The research has been funded by private donations, research partnerships, and grants.

Before being inoculated, the mRNA vaccine was exhaustively tested, with the dosage being extrapolated from data involving horses.

Houston Zoo veterinarians will periodically test Tess to see if she is developing the appropriate antibodies. If she is and there are no adverse reactions, the next step will be to administer the vaccine to the rest of the Houston herd. Many of these are Tess’s own children (Tucker, Tupelo, Tilly, and Teddy) and grandchildren (Winnie).

Should the vaccine prove effective, the doses will be made available worldwide to zoos and private elephant sanctuaries. It is likely to have a significant benefit on protecting and preserving the Asian Elephant population. As of January, there are fewer than 50,000 of the animas left in the wild. They are currently listed as endangered, and breeding programs and research done through the Houston Zoo are essential to keeping the animals from going extinct.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.