The 17 finalists are competing for Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year 2024 Gulf South Award. Photo via Getty Images

Entrepreneurs from the Houston area have been named finalists for one of the region’s most prestigious business awards.

The 17 finalists are competing for Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year 2024 Gulf South Award. The Gulf South region includes parts of Texas, along with Louisiana and Mississippi.

An independent panel of judges selected the 48 finalists. Contenders were evaluated based on their demonstration of building long-term value through factors such as entrepreneurial spirit, purpose, growth, and impact.

The Houston-area finalists are:

  • Shannon Payne, Allied Fire Protection, Pearland
  • Jay McEntire IV, Arva Intelligence, Houston
  • Andrew Levy, Avelo Airlines, Houston
  • Derek Maetzold, Castle Biosciences, Friendswood
  • Scott Aronstein, Connectivity Source, Houston
  • Joshua Weisman, Construction Concepts, Houston
  • Feras Moussa and Ben Suttles, Disrupt Equity, Houston
  • John Poindexter, J.B. Poindexter, Houston
  • James Ross, LJA Engineering, Houston
  • Asher Kazmann, Locke Solutions, Houston
  • Chad Millis, Millis, Missouri City
  • Mike Francis, NanoTech Materials, Houston
  • Stuart Hinchen and Peter Jenkins, Quva Pharma, Sugar Land
  • Trevor Best and Suman Khatiwada, Syzygy Plasmonics, Houston
  • Hal Brumfield, Tachus Fiber Internet, The Woodlands
  • Jared Boudreaux, Vector Controls and Automation Group, Pearland
  • Ting Qiao, Wan Bridge, Houston

“The finalists of this year are audacious entrepreneurs who are making a significant impact in their respective industries and communities,” says Anna Horndahl, an EY partner and co-director of the EOY Gulf South Program.

“These pioneers, chosen by an independent panel of judges, showcase relentless commitment to their businesses, customers and communities. We are thrilled to acknowledge their accomplishments,” adds Travis Garms, an EY partner and co-director of the EOY Gulf South Program.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Mike Francis of NanoTech Materials, Barbara Burger, and David A. Jaffray of MD Anderson Cancer Center. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to three Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a one-on-one chat with an energy leader, a founder's latest milestone, and a new high-tech cancer-fighting team.

Mike Francis, CEO and co-founder of NanoTech Materials

NanoTech Materials celebrated its move into a new facility — a 43,000-square-foot space in Katy, Texas, this week. Photo via LinkedIn

A Houston startup has moved into a new space that's more than four times larger than its previous setup — a move that's setting the company up to scale its business.

NanoTech Materials celebrated its move into a new facility — a 43,000-square-foot space in Katy, Texas, this week. The materials science company currently distributes a roof coating that features its novel heat-control technology across the company. Originally founded in a garage, the company has now moved from its 10,000-square-foot space at Halliburton Labs into the larger location to support its growth.

“The new facility allows us to not just focus on the roofing, and that’s growing at a pretty rapid pace, but also stand up different production lines for our next iteration of technologies coming-out," Mike Francis, co-founder and CEO of NanoTech tells InnovationMap. Read more.

Barbara Burger, Houston energy transition leader

Houston energy leader Barbara Burger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the energy transition's biggest challenges and her key takeaways from CERAWeek. Photo courtesy

When Barbara Burger moved to Houston a little over a decade ago to lead Chevron Technology Ventures, she wondered why the corporate venture group didn't have much representation from the so-called energy capital of the world.

“I had no companies in my portfolio in CTV from Houston, and I wondered why,” Burger says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Much has changed in the ecosystem since then, she says, including growth and development to what the community looks like now.

“There are a few things I’m proud of in the ecosystem here, and one of theme is that it’s a very inclusive ecosystem,” she explains, adding that she means the types of founders — from universities or corporate roles — and the incumbent energy companies. “The worst way to get people to not join a party is to not invite them.”

“No one company or organization is going to solve this. We have to get along,” she continues. “We have to stop thinking that the mode is to compete with each other because the pie is so big and the opportunity is so big to work together — and by and large I do see that happening.” Read more.

David A. Jaffray, director of IDSO and chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson

MD Anderson’s goal with the new Institute for Data Science in Oncology is to advance collaborative projects that will bring the power of data science to every decision made at the hospital. Photo via mdanderson.org

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is one step closer to ending cancer thanks to its new institute that's focused on data science.

MD Anderson’s goal with the new Institute for Data Science in Oncology (IDSO) is to advance collaborative projects that will bring the power of data science to every decision made at the hospital. And now, the IDSO has announced its inaugural cohort of 33 scientists, clinicians, and staff that will bring it to life, joining the already appointed leadership and focus area co-leads.

“By engaging diverse expertise across all of our mission areas, we will enhance the rich and productive data science ecosystem at MD Anderson to deliver transformational impact for patients,” David Jaffray, Ph.D., director of IDSO and chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson, says. Read more.

NanoTech Materials celebrated its move into a new facility — a 43,000-square-foot space in Katy, Texas, this week. Photo courtesy of NanoTech Materials

Growing Houston startup moves into 43,000-square-foot facility amid 'hypergrowth phase'

major milestone

A Houston startup has moved into a new space that's more than four times larger than its previous setup — a move that's setting the company up to scale its business.

NanoTech Materials celebrated its move into a new facility — a 43,000-square-foot space in Katy, Texas, this week. The materials science company currently distributes a roof coating that features its novel heat-control technology across the company. Originally founded in a garage, the company has now moved from its 10,000-square-foot space at Halliburton Labs into the larger location to support its growth.

“The new facility allows us to not just focus on the roofing, and that’s growing at a pretty rapid pace, but also stand up different production lines for our next iteration of technologies coming-out," Mike Francis, co-founder and CEO of NanoTech tells InnovationMap.

The space allows for a 340 percent increase in the manufacturing and operational capabilities, including producing 55 million square feet a year of roof coating. Francis says the new products he's focused on launching and scaling include a wildfire protectant coating and liquid applied insulation for trucks and containers to control heat for driver and worker safety.

Francis adds that he will be expanding the company's team to support this growth.

“We’re constantly hiring now,” he says. “We have about 25 employees right now. Next year, we’ll probably be double that. We’re kind of in a hypergrowth phase."

Francis likes to credit Houston in part for NanoTech's ability to grow at this pace and to be successful.

Mike Francis is the CEO and co-founder of NanoTech Materials. Photo via LinkedIn

“Houston has a shot at being one of the top startup cities of the world — I think it’s going to take a lot of time and capital, but what makes Houston different is its ability to scale existing technologies,” Francis says.

“I really think that Houston is already the spot to take an existing technology and build a team around it to turn it into a company because you have all of the players — whether it’s the end customer or the incubators and 'scalerators' — and you have all of these pieces coming into place," he continues. "Maybe it’s not the best place to start a company, but it’s definitely the best place to scale a company because of the ecosystem is really willing to participate and raise up startups like ours."

As the first company selected for Halliburton's incubator, Halliburton Labs, when it launched in 2020, NanoTech has worked closely with the company that housed and supported them for years.

“Once you’re in the Halliburton Labs fold, they are always just a phone call away from making something happen," he says. “We’re transferring all that knowledge into a bigger facility — growing up and graduating from what they gave us.”

Last year, NanoTech raised an oversubscribed funding round that brought on a handful of new investors. The details of the round were not disclosed, but NanoTech did release that the round included participation from three institutional investors, two corporate-strategic investors, and seven family offices. The company originally raised its seed round in 2020.

The NanoTech team, including Francis and Carrie Horazeck, chief commercial officer, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last year to discuss how they've rolled out their first line of business.


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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.