While each of this week's three innovators has years of experience under their belts, they are each starting something new. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Common ingredients among entrepreneurs is a great idea, plenty of hard work, and a whole lot of luck. And, if they are lucky, they've got some experience under their belts too. These three innovators this week are all in the process of starting something — a venture fund, an app, an investment platform — but lucky for them, they know what they're doing.

Allison Lami Sawyer, partner at The League of Worthwhile Ventures

Courtesy of Allison Lami Sawer

Allison Lami Sawyer's story has stuck with me since I first heard it a few weeks ago. Primarily because she's a fantastic storyteller paired with, well, a great story. She's from Alabama and didn't really meet a female entrepreneur until she was one. She started Rebellion Photonics and ran it for several years before recently leaving to start something new: a seed fund called The League of Worthwhile Ventures. Sawyer isn't afraid to start something new and cherishes her role inspiring or advising other women entrepreneurs by being a role model for innovation — something she didn't have as a kid. Read the full story here.

Chris Staffel, COO at Patients We Share

Courtesy of Chris Staffel

While relatively new to the health care business, Chris Staffel has tons of business experience from both coasts. She brings those skills to Patients We Share, an app aiming to enhance and improve doctor referrals. The idea originated from two doctors here in Houston, but as it started to take off, they invested in business professionals like Staffel to make their dream a reality. Read the full story here.

Rashad Kurbanov, CEO and co-founder of iownit.us

Courtesy of iownit.us

I'm bending the rules a little bit here because, unfortunately, Houston cannot claim Rashad Kurbanov. However, the New Yorker is betting on Houston for his new company, iownit.us. The website is a platform for private securities investors and fund-raising companies to connect and make deals — without any red tape. Kurbanov has years of financial experience, but has never done anything like this before because well, no one has. Read the full story here.

Efficient referrals from doctor to doctor could save a life, so this Houston company is setting out to create a network of medical professionals all accessible in an app. Getty Images

Houston-based company is connecting the dots on patient referrals

Diagnosing doctors

When your doctor recommends that you visit another practitioner, it's only natural that you trust the suggestion. But it's one case in which your physician isn't always an expert. Married doctors Justin Bird, an orthopedic surgeon, and Terri-Ann Samuels, a specialist in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery, have long noted that patients are often referred incorrectly.

No big deal, right? Just go to another doctor. But not everyone has that luxury. Bird and Samuels never intended to start their own company. But when Bird lost a patient due to faulty referrals, they knew something had to be done.

"He believes that if she hadn't been bounced around from doctor to doctor, they could have saved her life," says Chris E. Staffel, chief operating officer of Patients We Share, the app that the couple created to fix the broken aspect of the health care system.

In 2015, Bird and Samuels began their company when they were shocked to realize that such an app didn't already exist.

"They started working with physicians around the country who said, 'We really, really need this,' and they also invested in it," recounts Staffel. From those friends, they built a physician advisory board of 15 investors.

Prescribing growth
The project was accepted into Johnson & Johnson's incubator, JLABS in 2016, then TMCx's digital startup program in the spring of 2018.

"They started realizing it was gaining momentum and realized they needed to have business people on board," says Staffel.

They hired Michael Antonoff, a Rice University M.B.A., as CEO. He invited former classmate Staffel to join as COO. Having come from a background in oil and gas, Staffel jumped at the chance to try her hand in a different industry.

With new business clout behind PWS, the company is growing quickly. Currently, PWS is entering its next seed round of $2.5 million that will allow the company to pay salaries of new team members and bring some tech development in-house. Until now, the making of the app itself has been outsourced to Mobisoft Infotech, a company based in Houston and India, which has worked on many projects at the Texas Medical Center. Local Black + Grey Studio is responsible for the design.

PWS has been working with both those teams in recent months to get a prototype app ready for launch. Currently, 100 physicians around the country are part of an invite-only pilot program. Soon, Staffel hopes to allow early adopter doctors who haven't been invited to enroll in the program for free. It will likely be in 2020 that patients will start joining the community, too.

How it works
An index of all the providers on the app allows doctors to easily find practitioners in a particular specialty. But there's more to it. Detailed profiles contribute to machine learning that assures the optimal match every time. Patient reviews will also play a role.

Though referrals were the impetus for the creation of PWS, it may be even more important as a communication tool between doctors, fellow clinicians (anyone from nurse practitioners to physical therapists may be invited to join), and patients. Staffel says participants in the pilot program are already using the messaging system to compare notes on cases, even sending photos from surgery to consult on patient issues.

The app's encryption means that it's HIPAA-compliant. Patients provide permission to discuss their cases via the app. And they can be confident of the quality of care they'll receive. Likely, the app will remain largely invite-only, and everyone who joins will share their National Provider Identifier licenses to be vetted against the federal database.

Doctors will communicate directly with patients through the app, but will also share resources digitally. Instead of making copy after copy of information about post-surgical care, for instance, the physician need only press a button to share a link.

Eventually, the goal is for PWS to be used not just nationally, but internationally, not just by individuals, but by whole hospital systems. A world in which doctors can compare notes around globe could be a little safer for us all.

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Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.