From research and venture capital funding to startup growth and accelerator applications opened, here's what you need to know in Houston innovation news. Photo via Getty Images

The month of May has started strong with Houston innovation news, and there might be some headlines you might have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, local universities share big moves in cybersecurity and plant research, a Houston entrepreneur raises extra seed funding, and more.

Houston medical technology accelerator opens applications

This medtech startup accelerator has applications open. Graphic via proximacro.com

M1 MedTech, Proxima Clinical Research's medical technology accelerator is accepting applications for its fall cohort. The program is seeking five to seven early-stage medical device companies for the three-month program. The cohort companies will have investment opportunities up to $100,000 as a combination of both cash and in-kind services.

“Our program is unique in that it combines acceleration capital, company building expertise, and the regulatory and clinical services of a top CRO,” says Larry Lawson, a venture partner and investor with M1, in the news release. “Access to the M1 founders’ network, both within and outside of the Texas Medical Center, sets these companies up for success. There’s no better group to build a MedTech company with, period.”

M1 MedTech, which was announced last year, was created to support early-stage medical device companies with a unique coaching process that will include a curated educational program, interactive workshops where participants can continually build out specific company deliverables, and tailored one-on-one mentoring.

“Many MedTech companies are launched by innovative first-time founders with strong scientific and medical expertise, but who have never taken a regulated product to market or built a business. After working with so many companies at various stages of this journey to market, both with Proxima CRO and with accelerators from across the country, we realized there was a gap that needed to be filled for these rising founders. They not only need regulatory and clinical assistance from experts with hundreds of success stories in this field, we found they also need assistance with design, manufacturing, business, IP, and so much more,” says Isabella Schmitt, RAC, Director of Regulatory Affairs for Proxima CRO and Principle at M1. “These rising founders need to know what they don’t know; so, we put a lot of thought into what emerging companies and rising executives really need, and from that, we built the M1 curriculum.”

Applications will remain open until May 31. To apply for the Fall 2022 cohort or to learn more about M1 MedTech, visit m1medtech.com.

Houston entrepreneur adds $1M to seed round

Houston-based Upgrade has raised additional seed funding. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston-based Upgrade Boutique — which uses technology to connect women with high-quality wigs and hair extensions — extended its seed round by $1 million, Fast Company reported. The round's initial seed leaders included Houston-based venture capital firms Artemis Fund and Mercury Fund, as well as Logitech president and CEO Bracken P. Darrell and ANIM.

“This [investment] will enable us to scale even faster and continue to invest in tools and resources that will improve the consumer experience, and help stylists operate more efficiently,” Winters tells Fast Company. “Based on feedback from the stylists on our platform, we see this as a natural development in the company’s evolution.”

University of Houston joins cybersecurity initiative

UH joins group that's advancing cybersecurity. Image via Getty Images

The University of Houston has joined a consortium that's funded by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to launch a virtual institute that will recruit and train the next cybersecurity generation that will protect entities from cyber warfare, cyber espionage, and attacks on the electromagnetic spectrum.

The virtual institute is called VICEROY — Virtual Institutes for Cyber and Electromagnetic Spectrum Research and Employ — DECREE and will be led by Northeastern University and offered across five universities, including UH, Northern Arizona University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of South Carolina.

“The VICEROY DECREE virtual institute consortium model is transformational. It brings together the best offerings from multiple institutions to meet the workforce training needs in these domains," says Hanadi Rifai, Moores Professor of civil and environmental engineering and UH team lead on the project, in the news release.

One major focus for the program is the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes radio waves, and is a critical enabler for communications, navigation, radar, training and other military operations. The DoD has been seeking to hire more than 8,000 cyber workers to help defend the virtual space.

"We recognize the importance and need for workforce training in cybersecurity, electromagnetism, cryptography and data science. These are areas of specific focus and expertise on our campus,” says Paula Myrick Short, UH senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, in the release.

The two-year program starts in fall 2022 and is funded by a $1.5 million award from the Griffiss Institute, a nonprofit talent and technology accelerator for DoD and its academic, government, and industry partners around the world.

Local composting company moves into new Houston space and expands to Austin

Moonshot has expanded locally and statewide. Photo courtesy of Moonshot

Houston-based Moonshot Composting has announced its relocation to a 8,225-square-foot space in Northside Village at 1410 Bigelow St. The former Yellow Cab outpost is over five times the size of the originally location.

Additionally, this month Moonshot will open its doors in the greater Austin area with a facility in Creedmoor, just south of Austin. Moonshot's first commercial customer was Austin-headquartered Tacodeli.

The company has grown its business to nearly 500 subscribers, including 40 commercials accounts, as well as seven full-time and four part-time employees. Moonshot is diverting 30,000 pounds of food waste a week, with a total of nearly 1,000,000 pounds diverted since July 2020, per a news release.

“We are excited about our growth and all the individuals and companies getting on board to get food waste out of landfills and onto composting sites,” says Chris Wood, Moonshot principal and co-founder, in the release. “Our new space will make for more efficient operations all around.”

Moonshot Composting's commercial subscribers include Rice University, Houston Baptist University, The Awty International School, ConocoPhillips, Snooze Eatery, Ostia, and Amli Residential.

Rice University biologist wins NIH award

This Rice University scientist has received national recognition for her work plant cell analysis. Photo courtesy of Rice

A Rice University postdoctoral fellow and molecular and cell biologist has received a prestigious National Institutes of Health award.

Durre Muhammad of Rice Academy won the MOSAIC (Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers) K99/R00 award, which is intended to help postdoctoral researchers transition into careers while enhancing diversity within the academic biomedical research workforce, according to a news release from Rice. She's only the fourth individual from Rice to receive this recognition.

The first two years of the award will support the biologist's work in Bonnie Bartel's lab. She is working on defining the mechanisms by which cells in plants identify and eliminate damaged or obsolete organelles known as peroxisomes, which also play important roles in human aging.

“Our lab in general works on all things peroxisome, and I mainly focus on the latter stage when it’s ready for degradation,” Muhammad says in the release. “We identify the signals and different mechanisms involved in the process of decay.”

Muhammad joined Rice in 2018. She earned her Ph.D. in plant and microbial biology at North Carolina State University and her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Illinois Chicago. She also has her MBA from Benedictine University. She received an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship in Biology in 2019.

“Durre is a fantastic scientist who has brought new perspectives and approaches to my lab,” says Bartel, the Ralph and Dorothy Looney Professor of BioSciences. “We are delighted that NIH has recognized her accomplishments and potential with this award.”

Since Moonshot Composting's inception, its subscribing businesses and residents have diverted more than 209 thousand pounds of food waste from landfills. Photo courtesy of Moonshot

Houston-based composting startup grows commercial and residential subscribers amid pandemic

green initiatives

From landfills leaking into the water supply to reports of recycling being dropped in landfills, Houston's sustainable future has been mired by waste management faux-pas. According to a fact sheet from the City of Houston, 81 percent of trash in Houston ends up in landfills. Brothers-in-law Chris Wood and Joe Villa co-founded Moonshot Composting in hopes of improving Houston's environmental future.

After the birth of his second child, Wood stepped away from his career as a corporate attorney to stay home and find new opportunities outside of law.

"Just through conversations and reading, it became clear that Houston had not yet picked up the pace on diverting food waste as a city," says Wood.

Composting, a method of decomposing organic solid wastes that's growing in popularity, diverts trash like food and paper towels into compost that can be used to grow plants. While letting your waste have a second life sounds like a sweet deal, it's also a sustainable one. More compost means less waste in landfills, a major contributor to harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

The scarcity of composting options left Wood with answers to what was holding Houston back. Was it the sheer size of the city alone? He reached out to Villa, who had spent 15 years in transportation logistics, with a laundry list of questions.

"How do we minimize a real waste stream that's going to the landfill and maximize streams of materials that we're not using anymore to be reused in some new form or fashion," poses Wood.

It wasn't long before Villa and Wood entrenched themselves in research. The two traveled to South Carolina for the U.S. Composting Council's annual conference last January and left feeling inspired to bring their idea to fruition. Like the rest of the world, they couldn't have anticipated that COVID-19 would rattle the nation in the weeks to come and cause a string of lockdowns across the U.S.

Brothers-in-law Chris Wood and Joe Villa co-founded Moonshot Composting in hopes of improving Houston's environmental future. Photo courtesy of Moonshot

"Even though the pandemic hit before we launched our business, we were far enough along that we felt like we could do this safely," says Wood. A benefit of Moonshot Composting's structure was its drop-off and pick-up style program for both businesses and consumers.

The two co-founders weren't the only people finding a newfound passion for. According to Google Trends, users were searching for ways to compost at home at increased rates after the first stay-at-home order was announced last March. As people were learning to back sourdough and building their puzzle collections, they were also wondering how to be more sustainable in their households. The keywords "composting at home" surged to its greatest peaks during April, July and September in 2020.

With a growth-focused plan to help Houston be greener, Moonshot Composting recently participated in cohort 3 of The Ion's Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, where Villa and Wood gained insights from mentors and business leaders.

The momentum has continued with the company's latest release: a digital Diversion Dashboard for residential customers who track their composting totals, compare their composting to other communities, and share the statistics on social media.

"We knew from the time that we started, that there was an opportunity to introduce technology to improve people's behavior around the trash can," says Wood. "Our plan was to operate for at least a year and understand what it's like to help people compost in their business and at home. From the beginning [of our business], we weighed everything we picked up, because we knew that what you can't measure you can't change."

After putting in place a system to weigh each compost pick-up, the two reached out to their network to bring in outside developers.

The proprietary dashboard also translates the weight of compost to residential impact. Looking at Wood's own dashboard, he can see that his compost weighs the equivalent to 168 pineapples and can notice that his neighborhood is ranked second on Moonshot Composting's list of serviceable areas.

A version of the Diversion Dashboard was first made available to commercial subscribers in the spring on a trial basis. Similar to the consumer platform, the commercial dashboard provides carbon equivalencies to compare your environmental impact like pounds of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere and "un-driven" miles.

Moonshot Composting's commercial subscribers include Rice University, Houston Baptist University, The Awty International School, ConocoPhillips, Tacodeli, Snooze Eatery, Ostia, and Amli Residential.

Since Moonshot Composting's inception, its subscribing businesses and residents have diverted more than 209 thousand pounds of food waste from landfills.

While the gamification of composting is new, research on the subject is promising. Gamification has been a powerful tool in the consumer technology apparatus for years. Various studies have analyzed the effectiveness of gamification as a self-motivating tool that has a positive impact on health and wellbeing and increases the meaningfulness of an action.

You can drink from a water bottle that awards you for reaching your daily intake, compete with your friends to see who took the most steps using AppleWatches or FitBits, and run miles to earn money for charity. When not enter some healthy competition with your neighbors using the Diversion Dashboard?

When creating the dashboard, Wood and Villa sought to create a fun way to motivate Houstonians to compost and connect with others over their environmental efforts. While cities like Seattle and San Francisco have established city-wide composting program, the co-founders are enthusiastic about expanding a coalition of eco-savvy Houstonians.

"Whether it's good or bad, we [Houston] don't always lead with government mandates, but we always lead with businesses working together with communities to try to do good," says Wood, "We can do it through innovation and that kind of matches the Houston spirit."

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator has announced its most recent cohort ahead of moving into the physical hub later this year. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston accelerator announces third cohort focused on sustainability

seeing green

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator has named the five companies participating in its latest cohort, which starts next week.

Launched in 2019, the programing for the accelerator and its member companies focus on addressing the needs and challenges the city of Houston and other major metros are facing — including climate change. The five selected companies will start the 12-week program next week with a goal of securing a pilot with the city.

"We're thrilled to kick-off Cohort 3," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at The Ion, in a news release. "The ISRCA remains a core asset in The Ion's Programs portfolio, since it enables recurring collisions, connections, and collaborations among startups, stakeholders, and subject-matter experts."

The selected startups are:

  • Phase Filter/Kinetic Synergies: The university-born startup has created an automatically changing air filter that works with existing HVAC systems to lower cost and energy use as well as eliminate the annoying chore.
  • Frakktal: In an effort to create a circular economy, Frakktal repurposes and reuses discarded polymer materials from the greater Gulf Coast region to also use in the same region.
  • Moonshot Compost: The company collects food waste from Houston residents and businesses via curbside pickup and drop-off while also collects and provides data on each pickup.
  • Teratonix: Using radio frequency (RF) electromagnetic from radio /TV broadcast, cell phone tower, wifi routers, and more, Teratonix provides solutions to generate electricity.
  • Smart Watts:The company taps into smart meter sensors to enable a personalized energy monitoring dashboard that provides users with data to make better energy use decisions.

"The ISRCA Cohort 3 will highlight companies that focus on making sure Houston is here for generations to come," says Courtney Cogdill, program manager for The Accelerator Hub at The Ion, in the release. "By activating the Houston innovation ecosystem and showcasing Houston's talent, Cohort 3 will spotlight Houston as a city committed to sustainability."

The previous cohorts of the program focused on resilience and mobility in Cohort 1 and cleantech for Cohort 2.

"As the world-at-large expands their mobility with social distancing restrictions lifted, it's important cities and businesses review their sustainability practices and carbon footprint and continue to improve upon the progress that's been made," says Jan E. Odegard, interim executive director of The Ion, in the release. "The Ion is excited to empower entrepreneurs who will play a critical role in improving sustainability. With Houston and our diverse and innovative industries as a backdrop, The Ion is prepared to address the challenges sustainability will face in a post COVID-19 world."

The program will be housed in The Ion, a 266,000-square-foot mixed-use structure, which is expected to open within the next few months, along with the organization's other accelerator programs.

Learn more about The Ion's accelerators by streaming this recent Houston Innovators Podcast with Galib and Cogdill:

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.