This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Ayse McCracken of Ignite Healthcare Network, Paul Cherukuri of Rice University, and Oyetewa Oyerinde of Baylor College of Medicine. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health care to academia — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Ayse McCracken, founder of Ignite Healthcare Network

Ayse McCracken, founder of Ignite Healthcare Network, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how she's growing her impact on female health tech founders. Photo via LinkedIn

With a decades-long career in health care, Ayse McCracken's most recent professional chapter has been laser focused on finding, supporting, and accelerating female-founded startups in health tech with her nonprofit, Ignite Healthcare Network.

Originally founded in 2017 as a pitch competition, Ignite has evolved to become an active and integral program for female health tech entrepreneurs. Ninety-one founders have graduated from Ignite and gone on to raise over $550 million in funding for their ventures. Currently, Ignite has 19 women in its 2023 cohort, which concludes November 9 with the annual Fire Pitch competition.

"Having an impact in the health care industry and finding solutions is important to me," McCracken says of her passion for Ignite on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The second aspect of that is there are so many women in health care, and yet you don't see them in leadership roles." Read more.

Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice University

Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice University, has had a busy week. Photo via Rice.edu

If it's seemed like a lot has been happening on Rice University campus this month, it's because it has. This week, Paul Cherukuri, Rice’s vice president for innovation hosted an event announcing the university's Biotech Launch Pad, a new accelerator focused on commercializing health care innovations.

“The Biotech Launch Pad is the first in a series of Rice Moonshots that are hyper-focused on building a ‘speed and scale’ innovation ecosystem across Houston," Cherukuri says. "We at Rice are committed towards driving the Biotech Launch Pad in collaboration with our partners within the Texas Medical Center and the new Helix Park campus.” Read more.

The university also recently announced:

  • The Rice University Office of Innovation's newly established the One Small Step Grant program that will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential." Read more.
  • The opening of the Ralph S. O’Connor Building for Engineering and Science, the university's largest core campus research facility. The 250,000-square-foot building is the new home for four key research areas at Rice: advanced materials, quantum science and computing, urban research and innovation, and the energy transition. The university aims for the space to foster collaboration and innovation between the disciplines. Read more.

Oyetewa Oyerinde, leader of the Skin of Color Clinic and assistant professor of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine

The Skin of Color Clinic is devoted to the unique needs of patients of all ethnicities. Photo courtesy of BCM

All skin is created equal, but not all skin behaves the same. It’s with this in mind that Baylor Medicine Dermatology has announced the debut of its newest office.

The Skin of Color Clinic is located inside the Jamail Specialty Care Center and is devoted to the unique needs of patients of all ethnicities.

The leader of the Skin of Color Clinic is assistant professor of dermatology, Oyetewa Oyerinde. Dr. Oyerinde, a Howard University and University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine alum, completed her residency training at Harvard University, where she made it to the role of chief resident in her final year.

“I am excited to lead a clinic that addresses skin issues commonly found in underserved populations,” Oyerinde says in a news release. “I want people in Houston to know that there is a place where an expert will know how to care for their specific needs.”Read more.

The Skin of Color Clinic is devoted to the unique needs of patients of all ethnicities. Photo courtesy of BCM

Baylor Medicine opens innovatively inclusive dermatology center in Houston

skin care for all

All skin is created equal, but not all skin behaves the same. It’s with this in mind that Baylor Medicine Dermatology has announced the debut of its newest office.

The Skin of Color Clinic is located inside the Jamail Specialty Care Center and is devoted to the unique needs of patients of all ethnicities.

The leader of the Skin of Color Clinic is assistant professor of dermatology, Oyetewa Oyerinde. Dr. Oyerinde, a Howard University and University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine alum, completed her residency training at Harvard University, where she made it to the role of chief resident in her final year.

“I am excited to lead a clinic that addresses skin issues commonly found in underserved populations,” Oyerinde says in a news release. “I want people in Houston to know that there is a place where an expert will know how to care for their specific needs.”

The leader of the Skin of Color Clinic is assistant professor of dermatology, Oyetewa Oyerinde. Photo via bcm.edu

Patients who identify as Black, African American, Latinx, Asian, or Native American all have different skin with varying requirements, which the Skin of Color Clinic will address in a culturally sensitive and competent manner. An awareness that some conditions affect people with darker skin tones differently than people with light skin tones informs the clinic’s work, as does the fact that there are also some diseases that disproportionately affect people of color.

Dr. Oyerinde specializes in issues including hyper- or hypopigmentation, scarring and non-scarring hair loss, acne keloidalis nuchae, and keloids. Meanwhile, Dr. Zeena Nawas will lead the cosmetic wing of the Skin of Color Clinic. Her areas of expertise include chemical peels, laser hair removal and DPN, and skin tag/seborrheic keratosis removal.

“Dr. Oyerinde will excel as the director of the Skin of Color Clinic because of her dedication to providing personalized care for patients of all ethnicities, skin tones and hair textures,” Dr. Ida Orengo, professor and chair of dermatology at Baylor, adds. “The Skin of Color clinic will focus on the treatment of the diverse complexions of our patients and address the gaps in treatment while aiming to correct disparities and help ensure inclusivity in Houston healthcare.”

To further address those disparities, Dr. Oyerinde is planning community outreach events for potential Houston-area patients who may be unaware that clinics like this exist.

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Rice researchers score $45M from NIH for cancer-fighting tech

freshly funded

A research funding agency has deployed capital into a team at Rice University that's working to develop a technology that could cut cancer-related deaths in half.

Rice researchers received $45 million from the National Institutes of Health's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, to scale up development of a sense-and-respond implant technology. Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh leads the team developing the technology as principal investigator.

“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real time,” he says in a news release. “This kind of ‘closed-loop therapy’ has been used for managing diabetes, where you have a glucose monitor that continuously talks to an insulin pump. But for cancer immunotherapy, it’s revolutionary.”

Joining Veiseh on the 19-person research project named THOR, which stands for “targeted hybrid oncotherapeutic regulation,” is Amir Jazaeri, co-PI and professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The device they are developing is called HAMMR, or hybrid advanced molecular manufacturing regulator.

“Cancer cells are continually evolving and adapting to therapy. However, currently available diagnostic tools, including radiologic tests, blood assays and biopsies, provide very infrequent and limited snapshots of this dynamic process," Jazaeri adds. "As a result, today’s therapies treat cancer as if it were a static disease. We believe THOR could transform the status quo by providing real-time data from the tumor environment that can in turn guide more effective and tumor-informed novel therapies.”

With a national team of engineers, physicians, and experts across synthetic biology, materials science, immunology, oncology, and more, the team will receive its funding through the Rice Biotech Launch Pad, a newly launched initiative led by Veiseh that exists to help life-saving medical innovation scale quickly.

"Rice is proud to be the recipient of the second major funding award from the ARPA-H, a new funding agency established last year to support research that catalyzes health breakthroughs," Rice President Reginald DesRoches says. "The research Rice bioengineer Omid Veiseh is doing in leading this team is truly groundbreaking and could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives each year. This is the type of research that makes a significant impact on the world.”

The initial focus of the technology will be on ovarian cancer, and this funding agreement includes a first-phase clinical trial of HAMMR for the treatment of recurrent ovarian cancer that's expected to take place in the fourth year of THOR’s multi-year project.

“The technology is broadly applicable for peritoneal cancers that affect the pancreas, liver, lungs and other organs,” Veiseh says. “The first clinical trial will focus on refractory recurrent ovarian cancer, and the benefit of that is that we have an ongoing trial for ovarian cancer with our encapsulated cytokine ‘drug factory’ technology. We'll be able to build on that experience. We have already demonstrated a unique model to go from concept to clinical trial within five years, and HAMMR is the next iteration of that approach.”

TMC again expands global impact with new Netherlands partnership

breaking news

The Texas Medical Center may be based in Houston, but the organization has again grown its global impact.

Since 2016, TMC’s BioBridges have worked with 88 startup companies. Those include strategic alliances with four other countries. Australia, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Ireland are all among TMC’s BioBridges partners. As of today, add the Netherlands to that list.

On September 27, TMC president and CEO, William F. McKeon, and Carmen van Vilsteren, chair of Health~Holland, Top Sector Life Sciences & Health (LSH), signed an agreement in Rotterdam. The TMC Netherlands BioBridge Memorandum of Understanding codifies the innovative goals of the partnership. Essentially, the BioBridge program provides a means for entrepreneurs, researchers, clinicians and industry partners from other countries to access the US market, as well as TMC experts.

“The TMC Netherlands BioBridge represents an unparalleled opportunity for collaboration and growth,” Ashley McPhail, chief external affairs & administration officer at Texas Medical Center said in a press release. “The Netherlands has solidified its position as a global leader in the field of life sciences and health, with a thriving ecosystem of research institutions, innovative companies, and highly skilled professionals. This strategic partnership will bring positive benefits to patients, clinicians and industry partners on a global scale.”

This lifeline for international healthcare companies makes expansion into the United States far smoother. The Global Innovators Launch Pad allows for startup founders to take part in a 10-week residency at the TMC Innovation Factory that will teach them about foundational infrastructure, clinical evidence and funding in the US.

“Since Texas is an important hub for innovation in the MedTech and digital health sectors, the collaboration with Texas Medical Center creates opportunities for Dutch companies looking to expand their international reach. Vice versa, it gives companies in Texas access to the vibrant Dutch Life Sciences & Health sector,” said van Vilsteren.

That exchange includes members of the TMC gaining the opportunity to participate in the Health~Holland Visitors Programme (HVP), “Shaping the Healthcare of the Future.”

The annual event invites high-level representatives from the private sector, NGOs, knowledge institutions, healthcare providers and different tiers of government to share their expertise.

It's the fifth partnership of its kind for TMC, with the last one being with Ireland, announced last year. TMC's other global initiatives include accelerators with Denmark and the United Kingdom, both announced earlier this year.

Houston startup founders prepare to scale globally following Shark Tank success

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 205

While Milkify's founders — husband and wife team Pedro Silva and Berkley Luck — secured partners on a popular business pitch and investment show, the entire experience almost didn't happen.

Silva and Luck, who got her PhD in molecular and biomedical s at Baylor College of Medicine, founded the company to provide breast milk freeze drying as a service to Houston-area families. Now, Milkify has customers across the country, but the duo didn't know if going through the process would be worth the investment and publicity, or if it would just be a distraction.

"The competitor in me wanted to be the first breast milk company to go on the show and to tell our story to the world — to show the world what my wife came up with that we thought was so great," Silva says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It was probably the scariest 45 minutes of my life."

But the sharks bit. Milkify's episode aired in April, and two investors — Gwyneth Paltrow and Lori Greiner — agreed to a $400,000 convertible note for 20 percent equity in the company. Paltrow even said on the show that she would have used the service when she was breastfeeding.

"It was empowering," Luck says of getting to wear her white coat on TV and share the story of how she came up with the idea of Milkify. "It was important to me when we went on the show to express that this had a scientific basis, that we didn't start this lightly, and that we've made huge strides in doing this in the absolute safest way possible."

Silva says they can't talk about some of the details of the show or the deal, but since then, Milkify has reached new customers, received additional investment interest, grown its team, and built out its plan to scale, the founders shared on the podcast. The team also shares its big-picture scale plans, which include tapping international partners to potentially take Milkify's tech global.

"Our vision is for every family to have access to breast milk formula, but instead of re-creating breast milk in a lab, we're doing it with mom's own milk," Silva says, mentioning a partnership with a breast milk bank that will convert its operation from freezing to freeze drying donated milk. "We're also working with groups in the UK and Australia to launch similar services using our patented technology."

"By the end of the year, we hope to see some announcements with those partnerships across the globe."

From the beginning, the importance of Milkify's team has been on supporting working parents to give them the best way to care for their families, Silva says. And for Luck — who says she's proud of the integrity Milkify has at its core despite competitors offering lower-quality and, in some cases, dangerous alternatives — she sees a lot of research benefits for the company.

"It's amazing to be at this leading edge, not just of innovation but of research, and to be able to still put out meaningful advances as an industry partner, not just as an academic," Luck says, adding that she hopes to be able to continue to contribute to the ongoing research into breast milk.

Luck and Silva share more about their Shark Tank experience, their co-founder strengths, and the future of Milkify on the podcast. Listen to the interview here — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.