Optellum, which has its United States operations based in the TMC Innovation Institute, has raised fresh funding. Photo via Getty Images

A Oxford-based health tech startup that has its United States headquarters in Houston has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Optellum, which has created a breakthrough AI platform to diagnose and treat early-stage lung cancer, has raised $14 million in a series A funding round. The round was led by United Kingdom-based Mercia, with additional investors California-based Intuitive Ventures and New York-based Black Opal Ventures. Existing investors, including St John's College in the University of Oxford, IQ Capital, and the family office of Sir Martin & Lady Audrey Wood, also participated in the round, per a news release.

"Lung cancer is an urgent public health crisis and Optellum's groundbreaking approach utilizing AI to accelerate early detection and intervention may fundamentally alter the healthcare community's approach to combating this disease," says Dr. Oliver Keown, managing director of Intuitive Ventures, in the release. "Optellum is uniquely positioned to align and provide considerable value to patients, providers, and payers alike. Intuitive Ventures is thrilled to provide our full arsenal of financial and strategic support to Optellum as we work towards a world of better outcomes for cancer patients."

The fresh funding will go toward scaling Optellum's operations and commercial launches in the United Kingdom and in the United States. Additionally, the company plans to expand its platform, including providing personalized therapy support using imaging data with molecular data, robotics, and liquid biopsies.

"With this strong support and commitment of highly specialized investors, we are positioned to accelerate commercial deployment in both the UK and the United States to expand our installed base," says Jason Pesterfield, CEO at Optellum, in the release. "Following years of research and clinical trials that have shown the impact of our software on the diagnosis of at-risk lung nodules, we're focused on expanding patient access to this crucial technology and identifying deadly lung cancer faster in more at-risk people. The funding will also boost our research and development with world-leading institutions and partners to progress further innovation."

Optellum's software provides support for physicians making decisions in early lung cancer diagnosis and treatment. The company was launched to provide better diagnostics and early-stage treatment to increase survival rates and improve health outcomes.

Last year, Optellum — whose U.S. headquarters is at Houston's TMC Innovation Institute — announced it would be included in J&J's Lung Cancer Initiative. The startup was a 2019 graduate of the Texas Medical Center's accelerator and its software platform, Virtual Nodule Clinic, received FDA clearance, CE-MDR in the EU, and UKCA in the UK.

"Optellum is the latest in a series of companies to channel research from the UK's world-leading universities into commercially viable products that can make a difference to the provision of medical care," says Mercia Investment Director Stephen Johnson in the release. "Having observed Optellum achieve great milestones over the years, we are now excited to become part of their success and apply our experience with scaling up software and deep-tech companies to help accelerate Optellum's impact on patient lives across the world."

Optellum, Liongard, and Cart.com have hired new members to their executive teams. Photos courtesy

Updated: 3 Houston startups make strategic C-suite hires

short stories

A handful of Houston tech startups have recently announced new appointments to their C-suites. A med tech company with its national headquarters in Houston has a new leader, a Houston software has a new exec focused on strategy, and a e-commerce company has a new chief revenue officer.

Optellum names new CEO

Jason Pesterfield will lead United States operations for Optellum. Photo courtesy of Optellum

Optellum, a medical software startup based in the United Kingdom and has its United States HQ in Houston, has appointed Jason Pesterfield as CEO to lead growth in the U.S. clinical market. Optellum AI-based software enhances early lung cancer diagnosis and therapy with its medical device software platform, Virtual Nodule Clinic.

Pesterfield was previously the president and CEO of Veran Medical Technologies, a leader in image-guided lung cancer diagnosis. He brings 25 years of leadership experience in the medtech sector. Optellum was founded by Václav Potěšil, Lyndsey Pickup, Timor Kadir, Professor Sir Mike Brady, and Jérôme Declerck.

"It took us almost a year to find the right successor who shares our vision and has the right expertise to take Optellum on to the next stage of growth," says Potěšil in a news release. "I am really excited to work with Jason, to make Optellum's platform available to every clinician in the USA and around the world, and to help them diagnose their lung cancer patients as early as possible. With Jason on board, I can focus on advancing Optellum's vision to transform early lung cancer therapy through partnerships that harness the power of AI software combined with molecular diagnostics, robotics and interventional devices, and drugs."

Liongard announces chief strategy officer

Patrick Schneidau is the chief strategy officer for Liongard. Photo courtesy

​Houston software-as-a-service company, Liongard, has named Patrick Schneidau as chief strategy officer. The company, founded in 2015, was a 2021 InnovationMap Awards finalist and reported that the team was looking to expand by around 70 new hires over the next year.

"Liongard is an incredible Houston growth story," Schneidau tells InnovationMap. "Our founders, Joe Alapat and Vincent Tran, have built a first-class team that allow technology service providers to operate at 10x by providing unprecedented insight and data into the systems deployed in the modern IT stack. In a rapidly growing market, they are quickly becoming 'must have' technology. I'm excited to join to team to accelerate their growth into new markets and with new products."

Schneidau spent over a decade at Houston-based PROS before serving in C-level positions at two other Houston startups — Commtrex and Truss. He's also previously served as talent committee chair for Houston Exponential.

Cart.com hires a new chief revenue officer

Randy Ray is Cart.com's first chief revenue officer. Photo courtesy of Cart.com

Fresh off its $98 million series B, Cart.com has named its first chief revenue officer. Randy Ray is tasked with driving sales growth across the company. He has over 15 years of sales and operations experience and was previously senior vice president at supply-chain solution provider High Jump.

"I've worked with the world's biggest retail and SaaS brands, and I've seen the need for a unified Ecommerce-as-a-Service hub to create operational efficiencies and unlock scalable success," Ray says in a press release. "I'm a firm believer in the Cart.com mission to drive success for online brands, and I'm looking forward to tripling our sales organization and building out a world-class revenue infrastructure as we take the company global over the next 6 to 9 months."

Optellum, based in the TMC Innovation Institute, has entered into a partnership with Johnson & Johnson. Photo via Getty Images

AI-optimized health startup with HQ in Houston takes its tech to the next level with new partner

ending cancer

Optellum, a startup whose technology helps doctors detect and treat lung cancer, has teamed up with one of the world's health care giants to broaden the software's reach.

On August 18, Optellum — whose U.S. headquarters is at Houston's TMC Innovation Institute — unveiled its new collaboration with the Lung Care Initiative at Johnson & Johnson, which racked up global sales of $82.6 billion last year. Optellum's key contribution to the partnership is its AI-powered software that aids medical professionals in detecting and treating patients with lung cancer.

With Optellum's AI-powered lung cancer diagnostics now being included in J&J's Lung Cancer Initiative, medical teams soon will enjoy access to an array of complementary technologies designed to improve diagnosis and treatment of early stage cancer. The Lung Cancer Initiative, launched in 2018 by J&J and Boston University, aims to prevent, detect, and cure lung cancer.

Lung cancer ranks as the world's most common type of cancer and leading cause of cancer deaths. About 1.8 million people around the world die from lung cancer each year. The current five-year survival rate is just 20 percent, primarily due to most patients being diagnosed after the disease has reached an advanced stage.

Optellum's Virtual Nodule Clinic software received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in March. Hospitals in the U.S. are rolling out the technology, with Asia-Pacific and European hospitals on track to eventually adopt the software.

The Optellum platform identifies and tracks at-risk patients, and assigns a "lung cancer prediction" score to lung nodules — small lesions, frequently detected in chest CT scans, that may or may not be cancerous.

"Optellum's vision is to redefine the early intervention of lung cancer by enabling every patient to be diagnosed and treated at the earliest possible stage, when the chances of cure are highest," the United Kingdom-based company says in a news release.

The startup — a 2019 graduate of the Texas Medical Center's accelerator — hopes to apply the technology to other lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Optellum recently was named one of the 101 best medical device startups in the United Kingdom. In June, the startup was among 38 AI projects chosen by the UK Department of Health and Social Care to participate in a roughly $50 million health care initiative.

Václav Potěšil, founder and CEO of Optellum, says the Johnson & Johnson collaboration represents a "significant milestone" for his company.

The J&J partnership "brings us one step closer to Optellum's vision of redefining early lung cancer treatment by helping every clinician in every hospital to make the right decisions and provide their patients the best chance to fight back," Potěšil says.

Of the 35 people employed by Optellum, three are based in the U.S. and the rest in the United Kingdom. The company's team also includes several part-time consultants, most of whom are based in the U.S. By the end of this year, Optellum plans to expand its U.S. team with several full-time hires, including a senior executive located in Houston.

Beginning next year in Houston, Optellum expects its technology to be available for patients in clinical settings.

For Potěšil, Optellum's mission is personal. He lost an aunt to lung cancer within a year of her Stage 4 diagnosis.

"I've seen firsthand how very healthy people can be killed, and it's still the most common and deadliest cancer worldwide," Potěšil is quoted as saying by the Texas Medical Center. "We are really focused on enabling cancer patients to be diagnosed at the earliest possible stage and be cured. It's not just the modeled data on the computer. It's addressing the right clinical problems to add value to doctors."

At TMCx's Demo Day, the cohort's companies boasted of local deals and accomplishments. Courtesy of TMC

TMCx companies plant Houston roots with pilots, partnerships, and more

Lasting impact

At the conclusion of TMCx's recent Digital Health cohort — the most international group to date — there was only one Houston company among the 19. However, most of that group have developed a presence in Houston throughout the program.

Besides just being based here in Houston for four months, TMCx associate director, Lance Black, says the city has a lot to offer these startups.

"Why Houston? Why are these companies coming from everywhere to be here? Three big reasons," he says to the crowd at Demo Day. "The size and scale of the Texas Medical Center, the diversity of Houston, and the willingness and hunger of Houstonians wanting to be involved in innovation."

From pilots and partnerships to funding and mentorship, these TMCx08 companies announced the impact they've made on Houston at the Demo Day on Thursday, June 6. Meanwhile, TMCx had its own announcement that it would create early stage programming for professionals connected to the Texas Medical Center.

"It is the TMC's mission to advance health care, research, and education. It's our mission at the Innovation Institute to bring value back to the med center through health care technology," Black says. "And, through TMCx, we do that through startup companies."

Here are some examples of TMCx companies setting foundations in the Houston ecosystem.

Virti

Photo via virti.com

California-based Virti has developed an extended reality simulation technology for training medical staff. It's a cheaper, more effective way to train personnel, says Alex Young, CEO of the company.

Virti was selected to be in England's National Health Service accelerator — the only evidence-based AR/VR training company ever to be picked for the program, says Young.

With a presence in California and England, Young says he's also planted roots in Texas too, with sales representation based in the TMCx offices.

"In the time that we've been here, we've closed deals in Texas and back in California," Young adds.

Optellum

Photo via optellum.com

Optellum is changing the way lung cancer is being detected. With the startup's artificial intelligence-enabled detection software, oncologists can better identify at-risk patients, which translates into more treatment for those in need, and less for those who don't.

The company, which is based in the United Kingdom, has raised funds abroad while networking locally.

"TMCx has been amazing for a small British company like us. We have started pilots and trials at four TMC member institutions," says Vaclav Potesil, CEO.

Oncora Medical

Photo via oncoramedical.com

Angela Holmes, the director of product and customer solutions of Oncora Medical, sets the stage at her company's Demo Day pitch by telling a story of her friend's daughter who was diagnosed with cancer. She was forced to pick between two treatment options. She had no data or insights to help.

Oncora Medical's mission is to help fight cancer using data. Though based in Philadelphia, Oncora has Houston ties, since it formed a partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center in April of 2017.

"We are so honored and gratified to be in a strategic, multi-year collaboration with MD Anderson to build this software system to save the world," Holmes says.

PreOp MD

Cody Duty/TMC

Within health care, the projected annual aggregate surgical expenditure by 2025 is expected to be $912 billion, says Christiana Obi, founder and CEO of PreOp MD, and a Houston-based anesthesiologist. She sees lack of information causing wasted surgical resources regularly.

PreOp MD — the only Houston-based TMCx company this cohort — has an app that allows for pre-procedure education, communication, and more that aims to prevent surgical delays.

While based here, PreOp is truly rooted in Houston, and even more so with their latest news.

"We are happy and excited to say that we have landed our first medical pilot at an medical right here in town," Obi says.

RoundTrip

Cody Duty/TMC

RoundTrip has a solution to 3.6 million missed or postponed medical visits that happen annually that are inconvenient to hospitals and a major health risk to the population: Ride sharing.

The Philadelphia-based company enables all forms of transportation and puts the power in the hands of the medical institution. From ambulances to other medical vehicles, the company can optimize utilization of all vehicles to get patients to their appointments and even has a partnership with Lyft.

While completing the TMCx program, RoundTrip closed its Series A round of $5.14 million led by Virginia-based Motley Fool Ventures in April. The funds will be used for expansion.

"Now we have all this new money to expand really rapidly. Texas, we're coming for you, whether you're ready or not," says Jackson Steeger, account supervisor.

Meru Health

Photos via meruhealth.com

Meru Health is also one of the 2019 TMCx Digital Health companies that has raised money while in the program. Palo Alto, California-based Meru completed a $4.2M raise in April 2019. The round was led by San Francisco-based Freestyle Capital.

Access to mental health professionals is increasingly more difficult, so Meru Health has created a low-cost digital clinic that offers an app-based treatment program from licensed therapists. Kristian Ranta, CEO and founder, while not yet providing specifics, that they aren't done in Texas.

"I'm happy to say there's some good stuff brewing here in Texas for us. More to follow," says Ranta.

Cloud 9

Photo via cloud9psych.com

Mental health is a key contributing factor in the legal system cycle, but it doesn't have to be Liz Truong, co-founder of Cloud 9. Better educating officers and providing them with mental health resources is the best way to get them out of the hospitals and court rooms and back out in the field to protect the city.

While some police departments have instituted ride-along programs with mental health professionals that have showed success, it's expensive for the police department and risky for those professionals. Cloud 9 has created a digital solution.

"We proved this works in the Harris County Sheriff's office right here in Houston," says Truong. "Officers reported that 97 percent of Cloud 9 care was superior or equal to their current program and showed an immediate 632 percent return on investment for our customers in the same budget cycle compared to what they were already spending."

Truong also says they have other local customers they are working with, including the Harris County Health Department.

Axem Neurotechnology

Photos via axemneuro.com

Recovering stroke patients need rehabilitation to get back to 100 percent, but getting patients into the facility is challenging and at-home compliance is hard to track.

Canadian company Axem Neurotechnology has a solution. With their external device and mobile application, physical therapists can track progress and communicate with patients remotely.

"When we talk to rehab professionals, they are excited about what we're doing," says Tony Ingram, CEO and co-founder. "That's why we have leading institutions in both Canada and the U.S. onboard for clinical trials — this includes TMC's own TIRR, which is consistently ranked in the top five rehab centers in the U.S. We're collecting core baseline data in the most diverse city in the country."


Correction: A previous version of this article said Oncora's partnership with MD Anderson was formed during the TMCx program, when the partnership began in 2017.

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Houston company premieres new platform for gig economy workforce

tech support

As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

NASA launches new research projects toward astronauts on ISS

ready to research

For the 26th time, SpaceX has sent up supplies to the International Space Station, facilitating several new research projects that will bring valuable information to the future of space.

On Saturday at 1:20 pm, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on the Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — bringing with it more than 7,700 pounds of science experiments, crew supplies, and other cargo. The anticipated docking time is Sunday morning, and the cargo spacecraft will remain aboard the ISS for 45 days, according to a news release from NASA.

Among the supplies delivered to the seven international astronauts residing on the ISS are six research experiments — from health tech to vegetation. Here's a glimpse of the new projects sent up to the scientists in orbit:

Moon Microscope

Image via NASA.gov

Seeing as astronauts are 254 miles away from a hospital on Earth — and astronauts on the moon would be almost 1,000 times further — the need for health technology in space is top of mind for researchers. One new device, the Moon Microscope, has just been sent up to provide in-flight medical diagnosis. The device includes a portable hand-held microscope and a small self-contained blood sample staining tool, which can communicate information to Earth for diagnosis.

"The kit could provide diagnostic capabilities for crew members in space or on the surface of the Moon or Mars," reads a news release. "The hardware also may provide a variety of other capabilities, such as testing water, food, and surfaces for contamination and imaging lunar surface samples."

Fresh produce production

Salads simply aren't on the ISS menu, but fresh technology might be changing that. Researchers have been testing a plant growth unit on station known as Veggie, which has successfully grown a variety of leafy greens, and the latest addition is Veg-05 — focused on growing dwarf tomatoes.

Expanded solar panels

Thanks to SpaceX's 22nd commercial resupply mission in 2021, the ISS installed Roll-Out Solar Arrays. Headed to the ISS is the second of three packages to complete the panels that will increase power for the station by 20 to 30 percent. This technology was first tested in space in 2017 and is a key ingredient in future ISS and lunar development.

Construction innovation

Image via NASA.gov

Due to the difference of gravity — and lack thereof — astronauts have had to rethink constructing structures in space. Through a process called extrusion, liquid resin is used to create shapes and forms that cannot be created on Earth. Photocurable resin, which uses light to harden the material into its final form, is injected into pre-made flexible forms and a camera captures footage of the process, per the news release.

"The capability for using these forms could enable in-space construction of structures such as space stations, solar arrays, and equipment," reads the release. "The experiment is packed inside a Nanoracks Black Box with several other experiments from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and is sponsored by the ISS National Lab."

Transition goggles

It's a bizarre transition to go from one gravity field to another — and one that can affect spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion, and cause some crew members to experience space motion sickness, according to the release.

"The Falcon Goggles hardware captures high-speed video of a subject’s eyes, providing precise data on ocular alignment and balance," reads the release.

On-demand nutrients

Image via NASA.gov

NASA is already thinking about long-term space missions, and vitamins, nutrients, and pharmaceuticals have limited shelf-life. The latest installment in the five-year BioNutrients program is BioNutrients-2 , which tests a system for producing key nutrients from yogurt, a fermented milk product known as kefir, and a yeast-based beverage, per the release.

"The researchers also are working to find efficient ways to use local resources to make bulk products such as plastics, construction binders, and feedstock chemicals. Such technologies are designed to reduce launch costs and increase self-sufficiency, extending the horizons of human exploration," reads the release.

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 — from esports to biomaterials — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Zimri Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO

Zimri T. Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he's planning to scale his biomaterials startup to reduce plastic waste. Photo courtesy of BUCHA BIO

After raising a seed round of funding, BUCHA BIO is gearing up to move into its new facility. The biomaterials company was founded in New York City in 2020, but CEO Zimri T. Hinshaw shares how he started looking for a new headquarters for the company — one that was more affordable, had a solid talent pool, and offered a better quality of life for employees. He narrowed it down from over 20 cities to two — San Diego and Houston — before ultimately deciding on the Bayou City.

Since officially relocating, Hinshaw says he's fully committed to the city's innovation ecosystem. BUCHA BIO has a presence at the University of Houston, Greentown Labs, and the East End Maker Hub — where the startup is building out a new space to fit the growing team.

"By the end of this month, our laboratories will be up and running, we'll have office space adjacent, as well as chemical storage," Hinshaw says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the episode and read more.

Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston

A nonprofit organization has rolled out an esports platform and event to raise awareness and funding for those with disabilities. Photo via Easter Seals

For many video games is getaway from reality, but for those with disabilities — thanks to a nonprofit organization —gaming can mean a lot more. On Saturday Dec. 3 — International Day of Persons with Disabilities — from 1 to 9 pm, Easter Seals Greater Houston will be joining forces with ES Gaming for the inaugural Game4Access Streamathon.

Gaming helps enhance cognitive skills, motor skills, improve mental well-being, and can help reduce feelings of social isolation due to the interactive nature of playing with others.

“This is really a unique way for (people) to form a community without having to leave their house, and being part of an inclusive environment,” says Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston. ”The adaptive equipment and specialized technology just does so many miraculous things for people with disabilities on so many levels — not just gaming. With gaming, it is an entrance into a whole new world.” Read more.

John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines

Levit Green has announced its latest to-be tenant. Photo courtesy

Levit Green, a 53-acre mixed-use life science district next to the Texas Medical Center and expected to deliver this year, has leased approximately 10,000 square feet of commercial lab and office space to Sino Biological Inc. The Bejing-based company is an international reagent supplier and service provider. Houston-based real estate investor, development, and property manager Hines announced the new lease in partnership with 2ML Real Estate Interests and Harrison Street.

“Levit Green was meticulously designed to provide best-in-class life science space that can accommodate a multitude of uses. Welcoming Sino Biological is a testament to the market need for sophisticated, flexible space that allows diversified firms to perform a variety of research,” says John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines, in a press release. “Sino is an excellent addition to the district’s growing life science ecosystem, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth and success.” Read more.Read more.