The Houston Exponential team has a new look to their branding and website. Photo via houstonexponential.org

The future of Houston Exponential is here. The organization rolled out its new branding today that was designed and created in partnership with a Houston agency.

HX tapped Houston-based NUU Group to ideate and design a new brand that fits the evolving organization's ambitious plans. HX is like a startup itself, the company explains in a statement, and is shifting to accomodate the needs of the ecosystem and community it's served since 2017.

"The challenge lies in evolving the HX brand to be more than a two-letter acronym, bringing it off the page and into culture," HX Executive Director Serafina Lalany tells InnovationMap. "We need to create a framework and strategy that allows HX to communicate effectively across audiences, platforms, and geographies."

The goal of the new branding is to clearly communicate HX's vision and value to both local entrepreneurs and the global innovation community.

"After a national search for a brand development partner that understood the impact we were seeking to drive not only for our startup community, but for the city of Houston we identified NUU Group," Lalany says. "NUU has been helping companies ideate, design and launch innovative solutions for almost a decade and is a champion for our city with groups across the country and around the globe."

NUU Group, founded by CEO Jez Babarczy in 2013, works with emerging and established companies to design branding that moves both business and culture forward.

"The theme for HX’s new identity is anchored in the idea that the path of entrepreneurship is tough, but with the right support founders can succeed," says Garrett Herzik, head of projects at NUU. "HX exists to help make that path less opaque and easier to navigate, to build a robust community of support that backs up Houston’s uncompromising founders."

HX's new website features interactive graphics and video, as well as highlighting Houston founders on the homepage. The new tagline for the organization is "building the future backed by community," which resonates with HX's mission to represent the diversity of the city.
"We're helping to make the world of entrepreneurship more accessible, less opaque, and easier to navigate for founders," the website reads.
In a recent interview with InnovationMap, Lalany says a key focus of that accessibility is to venture capital opportunities, which is why HX will be scaling its VC Immersion days in partnership with Republic, an investment tech company.
The branding changes come just ahead of HX's Houston Tech Rodeo Roadshow, which begins later this month. The new design will be worked into a part of the week-long event and meetup programming, which is aimed at showcasing Houston innovation.
"We hope to see the new branding give current and future founders confidence in their entrepreneurial journey," Herzik says. "We hope to see HX’s commitment to providing a robust community of support owned and adopted by the entirety of Houston. Transformation will move as fast as our community allows, which requires that we all adopt one vision of an innovative future. One that is possible for anyone."

Houston Exponential's website has a whole new look to it. Graphic courtesy of HX

Jez Babarczy, along with his company, NUU Group, is changing the world — one pixel at a time. Courtesy of NUU Group

How a Houston entrepreneur is bringing design to startups — and making the world a better place

Design thinking

Six years ago, Jez Babarczy and Gabriel Gurrola launched a startup in Babarczy's living room in Katy. The goal was to launch a company that was based in Houston, but known around the world for doing top-notch creative work.

"I saw a gap in the market," Babarczy says. "Houston [was] not known for world-renowned creatives. Companies tend to gravitate toward other cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Atlanta. I think we have amazing talent in Houston, and I saw an opportunity and a need for an agency doing [work] in a creative field."

Fast-forward six years, and NUU Group has worked on tech and branding projects with Fortune 500 companies, such as Bechtel and Cemex, as well as the Houston Texans, FIFA, Civic Nation, and a slew of startups. Its mission is simple: to provide design and creative services to companies seeking to do good in their industries or communities. NUU Group works with companies in all industries, and is planning to grow its footprint by opening more offices in the U.S. and around the globe.

The company, which employs 40 people, has its main headquarters office in Houston and opened an office in Querataro, Mexico last year. NUU Group's Querataro office, which has 20 employees, works to capitalize on Mexico City's thriving business sector.

NUU Group is led by Babarczy, Gurrola, and Kevin Daughtry. Babarczy spoke with InnovationMap about what led him to start NUU Group, as well as what's on-tap for his company — and Houston's broader startup community as a whole.

InnovationMap: What differentiates NUU Group from the competition?

Jez Babarczy: I think NUU Group offers something unique and different. We have a global mission and mantra that we remind ourselves of daily, and it fuels the work we do. Our mission is to explore new things that inspire us, and the clients we work with, and how we approach the work.

If we're truly going to have an impact within culture, within our industry, and within the lives of our clients, I think we need to look at our potential for doing good. That's something we've really embraced. It's part of NUU's existence to give back to empower others. It's easy to say you're a good-person organization, but it's different to advocate for others in a consistent manner.

IM: What core services does NUU Group provide?

JB: More than anything, we're designers first. The agency started as being very design-centric, but it's expanded beyond that. We're not just design-first, but focus on human-centric design and creating experiences that really resonate with the end user.

IM: What brought NUU Group to Mexico?

JB: So, Mexico was an attempt to explore new things, along with some business opportunities that were there for us. The stars aligned when we were looking at a second office location, and there were several options on the table. Querataro is a city around two-and-a-half hours from Mexico City, which is definitely a hub for things going on around the world. It's a great place and, given the business opportunities there, it made a lot of sense.

IM: What's you client portfolio look like? What industries have the most need for NUU Group's services?

JB: We're pretty industry agnostic in terms of clientele. There's definitely an ability to gravitate toward Houston's primary industries — energy and health care — but, we purposefully to work with clients across industries. A lot of the time, we bring in someone who's a little on the outside or on the fringe to look at a problem from a unique perspective. That that's where we shine. We also work with global nonprofits, startups and companies that we believe are doing some awesome stuff.

IM: What are the pros and cons of being based in Houston?

JB: The pros are that Houston is a great city, and it's a great city for business. We have a lot of big companies here, and attitude of, 'Let's get stuff done, let's collaborate and let's work together.' I think that permeates Houston's culture, which is great for doing business. Some of the cons, I think, are battling the stereotype that Houston isn't creative, that Houston is just an oil and gas city, or that Houston is flat and hot and humid. There's a little bit of an uphill battle in terms of recruiting. We've seen that people see Houston as a place to go if you have to go, but not a place you'd necessarily want to go to. There's an opportunity to tell a better story for Houston.

IM: Over the past five years, how have you seen Houston's innovation community grow or change?

JB: Innovation has definitely become more of a popular buzzword to the point where it's slightly nauseating. Along with the boom in technology and the rate at which it advances, our position in the national and global marketplace has led to accelerating these different innovation hubs within companies and coworking spaces. I think there's still an opportunity for Houston to define what innovation really looks like, and to ask ourselves, 'How are we accelerating it? How are we empowering it? How are we really doing it, when the rubber meets the road?' It's definitely something that's evolving, and it's evolving in the right direction. …

There's this anxiety over being left behind, and this frantic sense of [needing] to do what others are doing. Just because one thing is working in California, doesn't mean that's exactly what needs to happen here. I hope Houston can be willing to be open to really move innovation forward for Houston and Houston companies.

IM: What's next for NUU Group?

JB: We started off very branding-focused, and focused on visual identity design. Last year, we made some pretty significant shifts and positioned the agency stronger on the strategy and technology side. So, we have a team of not only graphic designers and visual storytellers, but of strategists, software engineers, frontier technology thought leaders and experts. We're really bringing together design strategy and technology to solve for business challenges.

IM: Where do you see NUU Group expanding to next? Any target cities in mind?

JB: There's no target city right now that I can share. We'll probably open another office in the U.S., and we have sights set on a couple of places internationally. Those offices will probably open in the next three or five years.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

Allison Williams, who has been working with the Transformational Prison Project for two years, attended Good Measure to consult on the brand development. Alan Nguyen/Good Measure

Houston creatives relaunch nonprofit's brand through a 3-day collaboration

For good measure

What if you could harness the power of a city's top creative professionals to create a brand identity for a nonprofit that otherwise couldn't afford it? Alex Anderson posed that question to some of his colleagues, and Good Measure was born.

"Good Measure exists to broaden the conversation about good in the world and what that means and how people can contribute to good no matter their skill set," says Anderson, who is a senior brand strategist and account manager at Houston-based NUU Group.

Good Measure is a Houston-based nonprofit that hosts three-day creative collaborations with local designers, writers, brand strategists, and more. The goal is simple: Equip a nonprofit with new storytelling tools — like a website, social media, and video communicating the organization's message.

This weekend was the second event Anderson organized with his co-founder, Tres Garner. The nonprofit partner was the Transformational Prison Project, which uses restorative justice in Massachusetts prisons to help incarcerated individuals mindfully use their time in prison to create healing. It's about bringing everyone involved in the criminal justice system to the table to thoughtfully effect change and reinstate humanity in these prisons.

"The Transformational Prison Project understands that no matter what your position is within the criminal justice system that everybody is vulnerable to trauma. So, it's in everyone's vested interest to create more of a system that's reparative and healing than punitive." says Karen Lischinsky, director of TPP, in the teaser video created at Good Measure.

Lischinsky was a vital part of the weekend, as was actress Allison Williams (Girls and Get Out), who has been an advocate for TPP and has led restorative justice sessions in Massachusetts prisons for two years.

"I wish to transform the way that prisons, as we imagine them today, operate and the effects that they have on people," Williams says in the video.

Using their powers for good
Good Measure brought together 40 creatives — designers, developers, strategists, videographers, photographers, writers, stylists, and more — into NUU Group's East Downtown office to develop new branding, web design, and videography for TPP. Filming took place down the street at Primer Grey. Anderson says the point is to break down barriers and bring together individuals who would otherwise not get to work together.

"It's some feedback that we've heard over and over again how refreshing and inspiring it is to work with people across the city," Anderson says. "So, you get to come together and learn each other's processes and have a case study or portfolio piece with someone who's work you admire."

Good Measure volunteers work alongside the nonprofit partners, so Lischinsky and Williams were there every step of the way. It was a learning process for both sides of the equation — the volunteers making sure they understand and express the TPP's mission as well as TPP learning the importance of the brand development process. Anderson says Lischinsky's presence was key to the success of the weekend — as was Williams' who wasn't just a celebrity endorsement. Anderson says he could see her full heart was committed to the program.

"You pull in a celebrity figure, and there's a tactical play. It's advertising," he says. "But what was different about this event is that Allison is not a face. She showed up from the first day of Good Measure to participate and contribute as someone who is on the board of TPP and an advocate for the program."

Creating a movement
Good Measure is planning to double down on its efforts for a New York weekend early next year to serve two nonprofits with 100 creatives volunteering. The organization also expects to return to do another Houston weekend in 2019 as well as a collaboration in Los Angeles.

Anderson says they also plan on hosting a one-day conference in Houston to discuss social good. Williams and Lischinsky are both onboard to attend.

Doing the homework

Alan Nguyen/Good Measure

Actress Allison Williams and TPP Director Karen Lischinsky kicked off the three-day rebranding collaboration with a discussion focused on the organization's goals, challenges, and messaging.

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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.