Seven startups walked away with cash prizes from this year's MassChallenge accelerator program in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

MassChallenge named its winners of its 2020 accelerator at a virtual event on October 22. The program awarded a total of $200,000 in equity-free prizes across seven startups from its second Houston cohort.

This year's program took place completely virtually due to the pandemic. Already, the 56 startups involved in the cohort have raised $44.4 million funding, generated $24 million in revenue, and created 297 jobs, says Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston, in a news release.

"This has been a year full of change, to say the least," he says. "But startups thrive in uncertain times — because they can move fast and remain agile, they are able quickly meet each new need that arises. I'm extremely proud of the startups in our 2020 cohort — during the course of the program, they've pivoted, adjusted, and evolved in order to grow their businesses."

The startups that won across the Houston cohort included Houston-based PATH EX Inc., which won the $100,000 Diamond Award, is focused on the rapid diagnosis and treatment of sepsis through an unique pathogen extraction platform.

Four companies won $25,000 Gold Awards:

  • Healium, based in Columbia, Missouri, is an extended reality device created for self-management of anxiety.
  • Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc., based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, specializes in problem solving using technology and software in the harshest environments – from jet engines to earth orbit.
  • PREEMIEr Diagnostics, based in Southfield, Michigan, created a way to identify which premature infants need an adjustment to their glucose levels to prevent them from losing vision.
  • Scout Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia, is developing the first commercial in-space satellite inspection service.

Two companies won the Sidecar Awards, securing each a $25,000 Innospark Artificial Intelligence Prize.

  • Articulate Labs, based in Dallas, makes mobile, adaptive devices to help knee osteoarthritis and knee replacement patients rehabilitate on the go during everyday activity.
  • Houston-based Starling Medical has tapped into tech to optimize urinary catheter for patients with neurogenic bladder dysfunction.
The Houston Angel Network awarded Ozark Integrated Circuits their prize of $50,000.
"The progress these entrepreneurs made in just a few months has all of the hope, drama, anticipation, and optimism of seeing dawn break after a particularly difficult night," says Wogbe Ofori, Principal at 360Approach and a MassChallenge mentor, in the release. "It's fulfilling, actually, and makes me proud to be a MassChallenge mentor."
The seven startups were awarded alongside 27 other startups from this year's Austin, Boston, and Rhode Island accelerators at the virtual event. The event was hosted by Chris Denson of Innovation Crush, and featured a fireside chat between Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, and Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director at the Boston Globe.
Earlier this fall, MassChallenge named its 10 startup finalists, whittled down from 56 from 13 countries and 13 states to its first-ever virtual accelerator, which began in June.

"In the face of great uncertainty, MassChallenge Texas in Houston charged forward and did exactly what they ask their startups to do: love the problem," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "The successful pivot to virtual is a testament to the strength of their global community and the motivation of the Houston ecosystem to get behind new ideas and create businesses that will set roots and grow here.

"As one of the most innovative cities, Houston is a place where startups can thrive – even in the midst of a pandemic. Programs like MassChallenge provide the best practices and networks to ensure startups get the access they need to create sustainable businesses and lasting change."

These are the 10 finalists heading to MassChallenge's virtual awards program next month. Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

MassChallenge Texas names its top 10 companies in its Houston cohort

best of the rest

Boston-based MassChallenge has named its top picks from its second Houston cohort ahead of its awards event. This year's programming, due to the pandemic, was held completely online.

"Great entrepreneurs don't let a crisis go to waste: this cohort was assembled from virtually every industry across 13 different countries and through the twists and turns, their passion became a beacon for the future," says Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston. "These top startups represent the best qualities of all of us: resilient, ingenious, and able to push ourselves further than we think we are capable. They embody the entrepreneurial spirit that brings hope and progress to society."

The 10 companies — which represent the top 18 percent of the cohort — will now compete in a final round of judging for up to $250,000 in equity-free cash prizes. The winners will be revealed at the 2020 MassChallenge Virtual U.S. Awards, which will be held online.

The 2020 MassChallenge Texas in Houston top 10 finalists are:

  • B2B Pay, based in Helsinki, Finland, is a fintech startup with a multi-bank platform.
  • FloodFrame, based in Richmond just outside of Houston, is a self-deploying flood protection system that can be easily installed to existing houses.
  • Healium, based in Columbia, Missouri, is an extended reality device created for self-management of anxiety.
  • Houston-based Integricote uses nanotechnology research that originated from the University of Houston in the treatment and fortification of materials like wood and concrete.
  • Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc., based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, specializes in problem solving using technology and software in the harshest environments – from jet engines to earth orbit.
  • Houston-based PATH EX Inc. is focused on the rapid diagnosis and treatment of sepsis through a pathogen extraction platform.
  • PREEMIEr Diagnostics, based in Southfield, Michigan, created a way to identify which premature infants need an adjustment to their glucose levels to prevent them from losing vision.
  • Scout Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia, is developing the first commercial in-space satellite inspection service.
  • Sunnydale, California-based Sizzle is using artificial intelligence to automatically create gaming highlights for the billion gaming viewers.
  • Starling Medical, based in Houston, has tapped into tech to optimize urinary catheter for patients with neurogenic bladder dysfunction.

The 54-company cohort, which is the second based in Houston since the program's launch last year, was challenged early on — much like the other MassChallenge cohorts — to pivot to virtual acceleration over the four-month experience.

Robert Pieroni, director of Economic Development for Central Houston, which was part of the group that worked to bring MCTX to Houston, says he sees a need for this type of accelerator now more than ever.

"MassChallenge's work sources ground-breaking ideas from around the world and invites them into an inclusive village surrounded by a network of tools, resources, and opportunities that help founders accelerate and scale their business to solve humankind's boldest challenges head-on," he says. "The addition of virtual and the rise of distributed teams in response to the pandemic will make it easier for startups to launch and build businesses anywhere."

MassChallenge's Houston cohort will be one of a few featured at the virtual awards event on October 22 at 4 p.m. Headliners for the event include Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, and Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director of the Boston Globe, and Chris Denson of Innovation Crush will be the host. For more information about the event and to register, visit the MassChallenge website.

Four Houston companies showed the city what they're made of at TMCx's recent Demo Day. Courtesy of TMCx

Houston-based medical device companies pitch at TMCx Demo Day

Local legends

Earlier this month, 16 medical device companies wrapped up their time at the Texas Medical Center's accelerator program and pitched their companies to fellow health professionals, guests, and more. While each made important connections in the local ecosystem during the program, a quarter of the entrepreneurs had roots in Houston already.

Four of the 16 TMCx09 companies that are headquartered in Houston. They have built solutions within sepsis, surgery, and transplant spaces in health care. Here's a little more about the homegrown companies that pitched at the event.

CorInnova

Photo via corinnova.com

The standard practice for acute heart failure patients is very invasive, says William Altman, CEO of CorInnova.

"The problem with existing devices is that they have invasive blood contact," Altman says. "Problem with that is blood contact is bad. It can cause up to 15 percent rate of stroke, which could kill you, and after five to seven days it provides 10 percent rate of blood destruction and has a 47 percent rate of kidney disfunction."

CorInnova's technology features a device that can be easily inserted through a 1-inch incision, and then be used for increase blood pumping by 50 percent.

"Surgeons tell us this is less invasive than minimally invasive aortic valve replacement, which is a widely done surgery, so this promises widespread adoption for our technology as we get it approved," Altman says.

The human prototype is expected to be ready in two years, with the next year being focused on animal studies. CorInnova is raising $12 million to accomplish its goals.

Ictero Medical

Getty Images

An estimated 10 to 15 percent of the United States population will get a gallstone in their lifetime. Should one of those stones cause trouble or blockages, the only solution is to remove the gallbladder completely through surgery. However, Matthew Nojoomi, CEO and co-founder of Ictero Medical, has another idea.

Ictero Medical has created a minimally invasive treatment that uses cryoablation to defunctionize the gallbladder without having to remove it.

"The CholeSafe System not only treats the source of the disease, but it leverages existing clinical workflows that doctors use to access the gallbladder," says Nojoomi, adding that the process only uses mild station and pain control.

The company expects to get to humans in the next two years, and has launched a financing round.

PATH EX

path ex

Photo via tmc.com

Currently, sepsis is hard to identify in patience. Even if a patient is in a hospital, and that hospital knows the patient has sepsis, the individual still has a 38 percent chance of dying, says Sinead Miller, CEO of PATH EX.

"Right now the problems associated with sepsis are very clear," she says. "It's the leading cause of death in our ICUs, and it's also associated with the highest hospital cost and readmission rates."

PATH EX's technology allows medical professionals to better diagnose and treat sepsis. The PATH EX therapeutic device can be hooked up to a patient and flow his or her blood through the machine to capture bacteria, clean and recirculate the blood, and faster diagnose what sort of bacteria the patient has attracted. The device technology is similar to hemo hemodialysis, Miller explains.

The Houston company, which recently won big at the Ignite Healthcare Network's Fire Pitch Competition, was named an honoree within the Johnson and Johnson Breakthrough Medical Technologies Quickfire Challenge.

The company was recently received clearance from the Food and Drug Administration as a breakthrough device technology. PATH EX closed its $615,000 seed round — with plans for a series A next year — and has received $1 million in SBIR grant funding. The company was founded two years ago, and relocated to call Houston HQ this year.

Volumetric

Jordan Miller/Rice University

Volumetric is banking on their technology being among the inventions that will lead the medical industry into the future. The human tissue-printing technology company has created the 3D printer and the "ink" that can create whole organs for transplant.

"We can create complicated vascular architectures inside of soft water-based gels, in this case, mimicking the structure and function of human lung tissue," says Jordan Miller, CEO. "We can oxygenate red blood cells."

The company is commercializing its technology and has three streams of revenue, which as generated almost $1 million in revenue in Volumetric's second year. The company is also in the process of closing its seed round of fundraising.

Earlier this year, the startup, which works out of Rice University, was featured on the cover of Science magazine.

Ria Health took home first place at the third annual Fire Pitch Competition. Courtesy of Ignite Healthcare

Female founders win big at this Houston health tech pitch competition

pitch perfect

All it takes is a spark for something to ignite, and, at the third annual Fire Pitch Competition by the Ignite Healthcare Network, eight female founders set the stage on fire.

The Fire Pitch Competition first started in 2017 to shine a spotlight on female entrepreneurs in health care. With two successful events under her belt, Ayse McCracken says she knew she could do more to help these women with their business ideas.

"What we discovered is that it's not enough. Startups get to pitch all over, and they want to invest their time wisely," McCracken says. "And it's not enough for the rest of the ecosystem — the customers — and the investors want companies that actually are investable."

So, this summer, McCracken and her team launched a mini accelerator. Thirteen companies participated in the Fire Pitch Customer-Partner Program that matched the companies with potential customers, pilot opportunities, and more. Participating customer organizations have included Humana, Houston Methodist, Memorial Hermann Health System, Gallagher, Texas Children's Hospital, Texas Children's Pediatrics, DePelchin, Next Level Urgent Care, University of Houston College of Medicine, VillageMD, and The Menninger Clinic.

Then, eight finalists of the group were selected to go on to pitch at the Fire Pitch.

Also new this year: More cash prizes. In previous years, the Fire Pitch has around $20,000 on the table. This year's awards doled out $265,000 in cash and investment prizes to six of the eight companies that pitched. The panel of five judges included: Babs Carryer, entrepreneur, and director of Big Idea Center for the University of Pittsburgh's Innovation Institute; Tom Luby, director of the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute; Kerry Rupp, partner at True Wealth Ventures; Sarah Sossong, principal at Flare Capital Partners; and Andrew Truscott, managing director for Health and Public Service at Accenture.

Here's which companies took home prizes at the 2019 Fire Pitch Competition at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute on October 17.

First place: Ria Health

Ria Health, a San Francisco-based elemental health practice that uses technology and care to provide treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder, was the big winner at the pitch event.

Jen Douglas, CFO of the company, took home first place and the $15,000 prize from Ignite Healthcare Network, but the company also snagged one of the new awards this year. The Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute awarded Ria Health with a $50,000 investment prize. Ria Health previously participated in the TMCx08 digital health cohort, so the team is very familiar with Houston and the TMC.

Second place: SoundScouts

Sydney, Australia-based SoundScouts is on a mission to help early detection of hearing in school aged children. Carolyn Mee, founder and CEO, represented the company on the stage. She took home second place, which didn't come with an investment or cash prize.

Third place: Savonix

Savonix also didn't walk away with any money, but was recognized by the judges for founder and CEO Mylea Charvet's pitch. The San Francisco-based company is a digital cognitive assessment platform that can easily and cheaply gauge cognitive function.

Texas Halo Fund $100,000 award: PATH EX

The biggest winner of the night based on investment size was Houston-based PATH EX. Led by CEO and co-founder, Sinead Miller, PATH EX has a solution to hospitals' biggest killers: Sepsis. The current TMCx company has a unique pathogen extraction platform that can directly capture and eradicate bacteria.

Miller accepted a new award for this year's program that came with a $100,000 investment from the Texas Halo Fund.

Texas Halo Fund $50,000 award: PyrAmes 

One award wasn't enough for the Texas Halo Fund, which handed out a second new award to Cupertino, California-based PyrAmes. Presented by co-founder and CTO, Xina Quan, the company has created a wearable blood pressure monitor that is reliable and nonintrusive to patients. Quan accepted the $50,000 investment from the fund.

Houston Angel Network $50,000 award: Materna Medical 

San Francisco-base Materna Medical, which created a device to help protect and prepare expecting mothers' pelvic health ahead of childbirth, took home the last investment prize. President and CEO Tracy MacNeal presented the company and accepted the Houston Angel Network's $50,000 award.

The next TMCx cohort begins August 5. Courtesy of TMC

TMCx announces its next medical device cohort with 5 startups hailing from Houston

Health tech

The Texas Medical Center's startup accelerator, TMCx, has added 19 companies from all around the world to join its medical device family.

The TMC Innovation Institute team narrowed down 140 applications to 40 for the second round of the process, which includes face-to-face interviews, according to a release. After those, 18 companies were selected to join the TMCx09 class, which focuses on medical devices. The last cohort, which specialized in digital health, concluded on June 6.

Out of the 18 companies, five are from Houston. Four other startups hail from other corners of the United States, while 10 international companies also made the cohort. The program commences on August 5, and will run for four months before concluding in a demo day event in November.

Here are the medical device startup companies joining the TMCx09 cohort.

See update at the bottom of this story.

Vascular devices

  • Neurescue (Copenhagen, Denmark) — Neurescue has developed a computer-aided aortic occlusion catheter to help save the lives of patients in the emergency care setting.
  • Venari Medical (Galway, Ireland) — Venari Medical is developing BioVena — a medical device that treats varicose veins and venous leg ulcers with a minimally invasive approach intended to reduce pain.
  • Obsidio (Solana Beach, California) — Obsidio is developing a universal gel embolic material to shrink lesions or to treat internal bleeds, aneurysms and vascular malformations.

Novel therapies

  • PATH EX (Houston) — PATH EX is developing an extracorporeal blood cleansing device designed to selectively remove pathogens, including multi-drug resistant bacteria, and endotoxins from circulating blood to diagnose and treat sepsis.
  • Innosphere (Hafia, Israel) — Innosphere is a medical device company developing brain stimulation solutions for treating cognitive disorders, with a focus on ADHD.

Rehab

  • AbiliTech (St. Paul, Minnesota) — AbiliTech is restoring independence to patients with upper limb neuromuscular conditions by offering a wearable assistive device that allows the user to perform independent activities of daily living.
  • Komodo OpenLab (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) — Komodo OpenLab has developed Tecla, an assistive device giving individuals with physical disabilities the ability to communicate, control, and connect with the world.

Surgery

  • CNX Medical (Houston) — CNX Medical is developing a transcutaneous neurostimulator that is placed in the ear and helps reduce inflammation after abdominal surgery, with a focus on post-operative ileus.
  • CorInnova (Houston) — CorInnova has developed a soft robotic non-blood contacting biventricular cardiac assist device for the treatment of heart failure that would eliminate the many adverse events associated with current technologies.
  • Ictero Medical (Houston) — Ictero Medical is developing a minimally invasive ablation solution to treat high-risk patients with gallstone disease and offer patients the benefits of surgery without the risk. The company was among the big winners at the Texas A&M New Ventures Competition.

Diagnostics

  • Artidis (Basel, Switzerland) — InArtidis has developed a nanomechanical biomarker technology using precise tissue measurement in combination with data analytics to personalize cancer diagnosis.
  • Inveox (Munich, Germany) — Inveox automates the pre-analytical process in cancer diagnosis to improve patient safety and lab efficiency.
  • Cambridge Respiratory Innovations Ltd. (Cambridge, United Kingdom) — CRiL has developed, N-Tidal, a device that analyzes CO2 end-tidal breathing to improve respiration monitoring.

Toward home health

  • Kegg (San Francisco) — Kegg is on a mission to simplify every woman's journey towards taking charge of her fertility with a user-friendly monitoring device.
  • TestCard (London) — TestCard is a flat pack urine test kit that functions in combination with a mobile phone application, turning a phone's camera into a clinical grade scanner.
  • Patch'd (New South Wales, Australia, and San Francisco) — Patch'd uses deep learning and wearable devices to predict the onset of sepsis in the at-home patient.

Transplant

  • Volumetric (Houston) — Volumetric's 3D bioprinting platform creates materials with living cells with applications in biomaterials, cancer research, and eventually human organ replacements. The company's technology started out of Rice University.
  • Tevosol (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) — Tevasol is developing organ transplant transportation solutions. Their portable warm perfusion machines will help surgeons transplant more organs today and solve organ shortage tomorrow.

------

Diagnostic Photonics withdrew from the program after the article published.

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Early-stage startup accelerator names latest Houston cohort, new local leader

new to Hou

A national startup accelerator has announced its fifth local cohort, which includes five Houston companies participating in the spring 2022 class.

Madison, Wisconsin-based gener8tor has announced today the five participating startups in gBETA Houston. The program will be led by Muriel Foster, the newly named director of gBETA Houston, which originally launched in Houston in 2020 thanks to a grant from from the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

The program, which is designed to help guide early-stage startups find early customer traction, connect with mentors, and more, is based in the Downtown Launchpad, and is free and does not take equity in the participating companies. The cohort kicked off on April 21 and concludes on June 10.

The new cohort includes:

  • Founded by CEO Steffie Thomson a year ago, Getaway Sticks has designed a shoe that gives women the painless support they need using athletic foam to create a shoe that gives women the painless support they need. Getaway Sticks provides the solutions to women’s #1 wardrobe complaint of high heel pain. Since launch, the company has earned over $35,000 in revenue from over 150 customers.
  • Through a combination of software and hardware technology, LocBox is rethinking the shopping experience for online and local purchases. If you shop, ship, or have food delivered to your house, LocBox will make your life easier. Led by CEO Sterling Sansing, LocBox has previously participated in the Texas A&M MBA Venture Challenge.
  • SpeakHaus is focused on equipping young professionals and entrepreneurs with public speaking skills through its on-demand training platform and group coaching program. Since launching in October 2021, SpeakHaus has facilitated 6 corporate trainings and coached 61 business leaders generating over $49,000 in revenue. The company is led by CEO Christa Clarke.
  • Led by CEO LaGina Harris, The Us Space is creating spaces intentionally for women of color, women-led businesses, and women-centric organizations. Since launching in June 2021, The Us Space has created partnerships with more than a dozen community organizations, sustainable businesses, and organizations creating positive economic impact in the City of Houston.
  • Founded in August 2021, Urban Eatz Delivery is a food delivery service app that caters to the overlooked and underrepresented restaurants, food trucks, and home-based food vendors. Urban Eatz Delivery has earned over $88,000 in revenue, delivered to over 2,000 users, and worked with 36 restaurant and food vendors on the app. The company is led by CEO D’Andre Good.

“The five companies selected for the Spring 2022 cohort tackle unique problems that have propelled them to create a business that solves the issues they once faced," Foster says in a news release. "From public speaking, apparel comfort, and food delivery from underrepresented restaurant owners, these founders have found their niche and are ready to continue to make an enormous impact on the Houston ecosystem."

it's Foster's first cohort at the helm of the program. A Houston native, she has her master’s in public administration from Texas Southern University and a bachelor’s in marketing from Oklahoma State University. Her background includes work in the nonprofit sector and international business consulting in Cape Town, South Africa, and she's worked within programming at organizations such as MassChallenge, BLCK VC, and now gener8tor.

The program is housed at the Downtown Launchpad. The five startups will have access to the space to meet with mentors, attend events, and run their companies.

"Creating (the hub) was a little like a moonshot, but it’s paying off and contributing enormous impact to the city’s economy. The five startups selected for the gBETA Houston Spring cohort will continue that legacy,” says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc., in the release. “As these entrepreneurs chase their dreams and create something epic, they will know Downtown Houston is standing behind them. I am so proud of what Downtown Launchpad is already, and what it will become.”

Muriel Foster, a native Houstonian, is the new director of gBETA Houston. Image via LinkedIn

Vote now for your favorite 2022 Houston science teacher

Rewarding the Spark

Since 2019, alliantgroup and the Houston Independent School District have been partnering for the SPARK Award, a program that rewards outstanding HISD science teachers who are increasing student engagement and achievement through innovative lesson plans that emphasize both the importance and fun aspects of science.

The overall winner receives a $3,500 personal award plus $500 for their classroom, and the other five finalists receive $1,300 each plus another $500 to spend on their classrooms.

Get to know this year's crop of nominees below, then be sure to cast your vote once a day here until May 25.

After working for three years as an accountant, Lynell Dillard taught a weekly finance class where her students became her inspiration to pursue a full-time career in the classroom.

She secured her first teaching position in 2002 and hasn’t looked back. For three years now, she has been teaching science and giving her students hands-on learning opportunities they may not experience outside of the classroom.

Dillard explains that for many of her students, her role as a teacher is to give them as many opportunities to interact with the natural environment as possible. She knows many of her students and their families would not have access to these resources if it were not for the school district.

"We all learn in a different way, so we have to be willing to help that other person if they don’t get what I get, and there’s no criticism in it," Dillard says. "I tell them they are my future. Every single part of your education is important."


"Before I went to foster care, I was not doing well in my education," Ruth Giles says. "My foster mom, Nancy, took the time to figure out how I learned. She figured out I’m good with memorization, flashcards, and practicing. I would not be here without her today."

Sadly, Nancy passed away in January from COVID-19. Now, more than ever, it’s important to Giles that she continue sharing her experiences with her students to keep Nancy’s legacy alive.

Giles says the best part of teaching fifth-grade science is helping her students view the world in a different way, just like Nancy did for her.


Melanie Jenkins has been a fifth grade ESL teacher at Katherine Smith Elementary School for three years, but first got started in substitute teaching. She then went on to fulfill her childhood dream of working in finance, but found it wasn’t all she thought it would be.

"I still had in the back of my mind these kids whose lives I touched and who remembered me and understood what I was trying to teach them," she says.

Now she can't imagine doing anything else. It's challenging that many of her students are learning English for the first time, but she focuses on vocabulary and giving them resources in both English and Spanish is key, along with truly forming relationships with them.

“I try to figure out who likes what and how I can bring that into the classroom,” says Jenkins. “If you are a hands-on learner, we have the opportunities to put our hands on things. If you are a project-based learner, you have the opportunity to do projects. So there’s no one size fits all.”


According to science teacher Mimi Muñoz, STEM education is important but learning to be kind should be first in any classroom environment.

She also works hard to get her fifth-grade students engaged in their lessons and understand why science is important to their everyday lives.

“They get so excited to do hands-on activities, experiments, and projects,” Muñoz explains. “One thing I really want them to understand is that you need learning every day of your life. And learning science, as well as the world around us, is their real life. The things I’m teaching you [in the classroom] are important.”

Muñoz has been teaching for three years and spent her entire career at Seguin Elementary. She says the last two years were very tough on her students because of the pandemic, but despite virtual learning, it has only strengthened the way she connects to her students.


An educator of 17 years, Gerjuan O’Neal is following in her family’s footsteps.

"My maternal grandmother was a second and third grade teacher, and my maternal grandfather was a high school government teacher," she says. "My great-aunt was an elementary teacher and then a homebound teacher. My favorite thing is that I teach kindergarten through fifth grade, so every day is different."

She loves teaching STEM to her students because they can see how it applies to the other subjects they are also learning in school.

"I really like for my students to be creative problem solvers, and I like to show them all the different components of STEM," O’Neal explains. "If we are doing a science technology map, everything fits together. If we do a Lego build, we’re doing estimating with numbers. If we are coding, they get to see where math is involved and where they must be critical thinkers."


Although this is her first year teaching at Bonner Elementary School, Leticia Sifuentes is a veteran of the classroom with 24 years of experience.

Her favorite part about teaching is seeing her students become just as passionate about science as she is.

“I tell my students I’m a science nerd. We watch a movie — where’s the science? We go somewhere — where’s the science? They’re able to bring science to everything they talk about. It’s in reading, it’s in math, it’s just the way we can incorporate science in everyday life.”

Sifuentes was named an honorable mention teacher for alliantgroup’s 2019 SPARK Award, but three years later she says she is a better educator after working through the challenges of a pandemic and virtual learning. She now realizes that as an educator it is not only her responsibility to ensure her students are performing well academically but also emotionally, socially, and mentally.

CAST YOUR VOTE ONCE A DAY HERE before May 25.

Houston ranks as No. 3 city for Asian American entrepreneurs

diverse city

Known for its diversity, Houston ranks as the third best major metro area in the U.S. for Asian American entrepreneurs, according to a new study.

Personal finance website SmartAsset analyzed data for 52 of the largest metro areas to come up with the ranking. The analysis looked at nine metrics in three categories: prevalence of Asian-owned businesses, success of new businesses, and income and job security.

About 9 percent of the Houston metro area’s residents identify as Asian.

The SmartAsset study puts Houston in fifth place for the number of Asian-owned businesses (nearly 19,900) and in fourth place for the share of Asian-owned businesses (almost 17.9 percent) among all businesses. Furthermore, Houston ranks 14th for the increase (nearly 9.6 percent) in the number of Asian-owned businesses from 2017 to 2019.

Leading the SmartAsset list is the San Francisco metro area, followed by Dallas-Fort Worth. Austin comes in at No. 11 and San Antonio at No. 14.

The largest minority-owned business in the Houston area, as ranked by annual revenue, is Asian-owned private equity firm ZT Corporate.

Founded in 1997 by Chairman and CEO Taseer Bada, who was born in Pakistan, ZT Corporate is valued at more than $1 billion. ZT Corporate generates more than $600 million in annual revenue and employs over 3,000 people.

“As we look ahead, the vision for ZT Corporate is limitless. Our team will continue pushing boundaries and finding the bright spots in the economy that produce consistent financial gains for our investors,” Bada says in a news release marking his company’s 25th anniversary.

ZT Corporate’s flagship businesses are:

  • Altus Community Healthcare, a provider of health care services.
  • ZT Financial Services, a wealth management firm.
  • ZT Motors, which owns and operates auto dealerships. Last year, ZT Motors bought three Ron Carter dealerships in the Houston area.

“ZT Corporate is a vital asset to our citizens as a longtime local employer,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says, “and has positively affected many lives through their health care organizations and philanthropic efforts.”