Houston innovator gears up for influx of infrastructure building

houston innovators podcast episode 128

Ody De La Paz, CEO and founder of Sensytec, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of his company as it gears up for growth. Photo courtesy of Sensytec

There are a lot of moving parts within a construction project — and so many opportunities for things to go wrong. Just within the concrete pouring process, there are a lot of variables to consider — and one Houston startup's technology is able to provide contractors crucial information in real time.

Sensytec's remote monitoring devices can analyze concrete's structural integrity as its being cured, and that data — the temperature of the concrete or soil, its compressive strength and quality, and more — is provided to users so that they can make decisions in the moment.

"At the end of the day, it boils down to time and money for the contractors," Ody De La Paz, co-founder and CEO of Sensytec, says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "If I'm able to save them two days per pour on the project, that could equate to thousands of dollars a day of savings — just by understanding the compressive strength of concrete now."

Not only is this a cost-saving tool, the technology building more structurally sound buildings that will last longer and better withstand environmental impacts, such as flooding, extreme temperatures, and more.

The importance of creating longer lasting infrastructure is topical, De La Paz says, and the United States government has taken notice. Through participation in AFWERX — the innovation arm of the Air Force, Sensytec was tapped by the military to use the technology across operations.

"The plan is to integrate our system and analytics from sensors into a multi-platform system that the Air Force is trying to roll out in all of the military bases," De La Paz says. "We're trying to be that center hub for concrete and soil monitoring for them."

With the passing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, $65 billion is being deployed to build or improve infrastructure — among other tech and transportation improvements — and a lot of that funding is coming to the Lone Star State.

"Texas is actually one of the main states that's getting a lot of that funding, so we're going to be seeing a lot more construction coming up," he says.

For Sensytec, the pandemic also has created new opportunities for business expansion and customer growth. Contractors and construction companies are looking to make sustainable changes — and are ready to invest the time and money needed to implement the technology.

"The culture is changing a bit. It's not necessarily about being able to do something the next day," De La Paz says, "it's really about thinking long term for the next generation."

De La Paz shares more about the future of Sensytec, including how the company will raise funding to support its growth, on the podcast episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Rice University President David Leebron was joined by dignitaries for the Oct. 30 opening ceremony of the Rice University National Security Research Accelerator laboratories in Dell Butcher Hall. Photo via Rice.edu

Rice University opens new accelerator labs focused on national security innovation

new on campus

A collaboration between Rice University and the United States Army has taken entered into a new phase with the opening of the Rice University National Security Research Accelerator laboratories in Dell Butcher Hall.

RUNSRA, which launched in 2019 with support from Army Futures Command and the Army Research Laboratory, premiered its new home on the Rice campus at a hybrid event. Most attendees tuned in via webcast while university president, David Leebron, and Provost Reggie DesRoches hosted U.S. Army Futures Command Lt. Gen. Thomas Todd III and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas.

"The accelerator is the first-of-its-kind, collaborative research facility designed to deploy and develop new technologies for economic and national security," DesRoches says at the event. "The facility includes space for visiting Army Research Lab and (Department of Defense) scientists. We see this as a new model for truly collaborative research that brings together research teams from across the country and across agencies to work on mission-critical technologies."

"We are the only university in the world with a deployed software-defined network already in place," DesRoches continues. "The materials we will discover here with our ARL partners will be rapidly prototyped into devices and deployed."

Walter Jones, executive director of RUNSRA, is a the former executive director of the Office of Naval Research and former director of plans and programs at the Air Force Research Laboratory and joined Rice in June. The goal of the lab and the program is to research technologies to advance the Army's modernization.

"The accelerating pace of technology will continue to change our world," says Todd. "It will require us to re-examine how we compete and, if required, how we win on the future battlefield. And it will require us to develop new technologies that let us compete and win by expanding what is possible, which starts at a place like Rice University.

"I know that tremendous benefit will come from this research accelerator," Todd continues. "And truly, it's meant to be what it says, an accelerator of technologies into the hands of soldiers."

Watch below to view the press conference and ribnbon cutting.

The Rice University National Security Research Acceleratorwww.youtube.com

A&M's Research Integration Center, which will house data and act as an innovation hub for innovators and military specialists, is expected to be completed next fall. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University approves $60.3M for military innovation project

gig 'em

Texas A&M University is in the process of building a $200 million, multi-building facility just off its main campus in College Station and Bryan, Texas. As of this week, the project has fresh funds from the A&M Board of Regents to continue on with construction.

The board approved a $60.3 million projects at the George H.W. Bush Combat Development Complex, or BCDC, on the RELLIS Campus in Bryan, according to a press release from the university. According to a news release from the university, $22.5 million approved will go toward hypersonic and directed energy testing range called BAM — which stands for Ballistic, Aero-Optics, and Materials. At one kilometer long and two meters in diameter, BAM is expected to the largest enclosed hypersonic testing facility in the nation.

"There will be no other place like it in the world," says John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, in the release.

BAM's construction is scheduled to begin in February — with completion by October 2022.

The other $37.8 million of the recent funds approved will go toward for a vehicle test track called the Innovation Proving Ground, or IPG. That's set to break ground in May 2021, and completion is expected a year later.

In addition to the construction at the BCDC, A&M's RELLIS Campus is also working on a few military innovation projects. Construction is currently underway on the Research Integration Center, or RIC, that will house all the data for the BCDC and act as a place to meet and collaborate for innovators and government personnel. The three-story innovation hub broke ground in October 2019 and is expected to be completed in the fall of 2021.

The complex is being supported by an initial $135 million investment from the state of Texas, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, and the Texas A&M University System. The U.S. Army Futures Command, or AFC) will invest up to $65 million over five years.

The plans come from a collaboration between the AFC, the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory, other military branches, NASA, and other federal agencies, according to a release.

"Some universities talk about, 'Here's what we are going to do for you,'" says Sharp, in a release. "At Texas A&M, we ask, 'What do you want us to do for you?'"

Texas A&M's RELLIS campus sits about 10 miles down the road from the main campus. Photo via tamu.edu

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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.