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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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.