Take the time to do your homework before jumping into launching a communications strategy. Photo via Getty Images

Co-founder of the Hackett Center for Mental Health, Maureen Hackett, once told me, "Newman & Newman applies the science of communications." I had never heard our approach to marketing communications described that way, but I understood her point. Before we produce promotional materials, digital campaigns or social media platforms, we research answers to fundamental questions for delivering a positive return on investment.

So many leaders want to jump straight into producing tangibles. I understand, they want solutions they can see, touch and hear, and they want them now. It can be tough to employ thoughtful strategies when you're pressed for results. The good news is that research doesn't have to delay taking action, but it has everything to do with how successful those actions will be.

Investing in communications research

Just as you wouldn't hire a marketing communications specialist to design a medical device, founders of a life science company are rarely trained in the proficiencies of strategic communications. Clearly, they possess the vision, but translating that vision into compelling language, and ultimately impactful marketing tools, requires an applied science all its own.

In formulating communication strategies, we study what you do and why it matters, as well as the perspectives of your key audiences to better understand their motivations. Much like a life science engineer applies research findings to develop new products or processes, we use the results of our research to develop messages and marketing tools that connect the purpose and impact of your innovative device or service with the unique priorities, needs and concerns of each group you are targeting.

Though necessary, it requires skill and insight. In their Industrial Biotechnology article, Marketing and communicating innovation in industrial biotechnology, biochemist Hamid Ghanadan and co-author Michael Long wrote, "The challenge is that most life science products and services address multiple market segments, fit within multiple applications and workflows, and are sought by multiple types of audiences. Thus, marketing management has to create a chameleon that can be compelling and convincing on very targeted terms."

Targeting your message on their terms

Organizations sometimes limit the focus of their marketing communications to sources of funding, investors and clients who contract their services or products, and telling them why they should. To prevent missed opportunities, it's important to research the full spectrum of your company's audiences. For instance, what key influencers in the innovation ecosystem have the potential of facilitating valuable connections for you or represent strategic partnerships? If you're a B2B2C company, who are your customer's customers whose satisfaction, compliance and understanding of what you've developed can influence the future of that contract?

Once each key audience is identified, what does it mean to speak their language? Because when it comes to formulating audience-specific messaging, one size does not fit all. The more tailored your communications, the more you incorporate their vernacular into your story, the better the results. This too requires research for effectively connecting the solutions you offer with what's important to a given audience. Ultimately, it's a merging of your knowledge and intentions with the unique interests, concerns and needs of those you want to reach.

Every organization is founded on answering a need. It defines your purpose. What is the significance of your organization's purpose and how is it clearly communicated in messaging that influences opinion and motivates action in your target audiences? Answering that fundamental question is the first step in research that I've yet to see not reveal significant results.

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Kelli Newman is president of the Houston-based communication strategies firm, Newman & Newman Inc., where she leads a talented team of marketing professionals advancing the success of their purpose-driven clients.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Barbara Burger of Chevron, Ashley DeWalt of DivInc, and Kelli Newman of Newman & Newman Inc. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — energy venture, sports tech, and communications — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures

Chevron Technology Ventures made two recent investments from its brand new fund. Courtesy of CTV

In February, Chevron Technology Ventures LLC launched its newest $300 million Future Energy Fund II to build on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Now, a few months later, Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, has announced that the fund has made its first two investments — one in a company with offshore wind turbines and one that's working on an alternative energy source from ammonia. Read more.

Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc

Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss diversity and inclusion, sports tech, and all things Houston. Photo courtesy of DivInc

Houston has a huge opportunity for sports innovation, says Ashley DeWalt, and he should know. He's spent over 15 years in the industry at both the professional and collegiate levels.

"We have a very high concentration of current and former professional athletes that live in Houston," DeWalt says, "and I truly believe — and the data shows this — these professional athletes are going to invest in sports tech."

DeWalt — who is the Houston-based managing director at DivInc, which just expanded to Houston — joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss sports tech and diversity in the Houston innovation ecosystem. Stream the episode and read more.

Kelli Newman, president of Newman & Newman Inc.

In her guest column, Kelli Newman explains missed communications and branding opportunities for Houston innovators. Photo courtesy of Newman & Newman

Chances are, you aren't making the most out of branding and storytelling opportunities. At least that's what Kelli Newman, president of the Houston-based communication strategies firm, Newman & Newman Inc., found in her recent research into the Houston innovation ecosystem.

"For two months we interviewed investors, accelerators, industry customers and entrepreneurs themselves, asking for missed opportunities they may be seeing in what and how companies are communicating," she writes in a guest column for InnovationMap in which she explains her findings.

From setting yourself apart from the competition and tapping into empathy, Newman shares her tips from her findings. Read more.

Don't miss a messaging or communications opportunity for your startup. Photo via Getty Images

Here's what Houston's innovation community is missing out on when it comes to messaging

Guest column

By definition, companies throughout the innovation ecosystem have a purpose-driven story to tell. As communication strategists who specialize in purpose-driven clients, we wondered if influencers of Houston's entrepreneurial community see any recurring communication challenges getting in the way of companies successfully securing funding, acquiring customers and even recruiting talent.

For two months we interviewed investors, accelerators, industry customers and entrepreneurs themselves, asking for missed opportunities they may be seeing in what and how companies are communicating. Below are our findings, with corresponding recommendations organized into four key points of action.

Distinguish yourself from your competition

"They may have an incredible concept, but terrible messaging," was a surprisingly common response to our investigation of communication obstacles.

Many innovators think that simply describing the inspiration for their company, perhaps the illness of a loved one or an observed struggle, is enough for explaining the Why of their story. In fact, investors, potential customers and even employees are looking for something more substantial.

First, what distinguishes your company from others like it? Regardless of how pioneering the solution you offer, it will be compared to whatever else is currently available to address the need, including nothing at all. Simply explaining how what you provide works is not enough. Our research substantiated the need for also addressing your company's relevance and differentiation. Characterizing the unique essence of your company is an important distinguisher from the competition that helps cut through the noise.

When formulating a client's organizational messaging we not only examine their purpose, we study their values and culture so that it is reflected in language the company uses to describe itself. Potential customers we interviewed said the compatibility of company cultures and values weigh heavily in their considerations for partnering. So, you're overlooking a key distinguishing strategy if you think target audiences are only interested in the nuts and bolts of what you do.

Speak the language of different audiences

More than the fundamental act of communicating, messaging is language specifically tailored to articulate an organization's unique purpose, significance, values, and culture. Messaging delivers the greatest impact when it functions as a tangible asset. In other words, a formal document of composed language that ensures continuity and is utilized as talking points for investor presentations, content on the company's website, themes reflected in digital advertising, etc. However, it should not be viewed as one size fits all.

Information with universal relevance, known as organizational messaging, is essential, but so is audience-specific messaging that addresses the unique perspectives, priorities and concerns of individual groups. The need for companies to recognize this important distinction was another of our findings.

While both investors and customers are interested in the viability of your company's technology or services, they each have very different needs and priorities. To motivate desired action, you must speak each audience's specific language, which means getting out of your head and into theirs.

If you're a B2B2C company, you may even need to speak the language of your customer's customer. Several research interviews expressed how companies shoot themselves in the foot when they don't take the long view of an audience's needs. If, for instance, your customer is having difficulty explaining to their patients how your innovative medical device works, composing instruction language and even producing patient education tools may be an added deliverable necessary for you to retain that contract.

Not recognizing employees as a key audience and overlooking the importance of strong internal communications was also identified as an obstacle to success. Clearly, attracting funding from investors and business from customers is a core objective of effective communications. However, employees should also be considered a priority with messaging that keeps them informed, inspired and on track. Afterall, they're the team that will take your vision over the finish line.

Connect on an empathetic level

Research participants emphasized the need for factoring in a discovery phase that not only involves learning how to speak an audience's language, but gaining an appreciation for the challenges, goals, protocols and culture of those they're approaching as well. It requires assuming a level of empathy and understanding, rather than a singular focus on "sales," that ultimately culminates in rewarding, long-term relationships.

Effective communication is not a one-way exchange. Listening is critical. When what you've discovered is reflected in your marketing materials, that demonstration of a genuine commitment to connect is reported as being even more impressive.

Avoid costly consequences of poor communications

Companies operating without a Strategic Communications Plan risk the expensive consequence of functioning in a chronic reactionary mode with scattered results and lost credibility through inconsistency.

Yes, flexibility is important, but the research we've conducted reveals a clear advantage for those who recognize the importance of effective communications, particularly growth-stage companies that have gained their initial footing and are ready to build on their brand. The key is putting a blueprint in place that connects the dots of what you offer and your distinguishing essence, with the needs of your targeted audiences, by speaking their language. If not, you risk missed opportunities for securing funding, acquiring customers and attracting the best talent.

Changing the world is your passion, helping innovative entrepreneurs effectively communicate that passion is ours.

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Kelli Newman is president of the Houston-based communication strategies firm, Newman & Newman Inc., where she leads a talented team of marketing professionals advancing the success of their purpose-driven clients.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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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.