Four Rice University lab-stage innovations are receiving fresh funding to get them closer to commercialization. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Four Houston research projects are splitting hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding from Rice University.

After announcing the One Small Step Grant program in September to support Rice-developed, lab-stage innovations, the university has named its inaugural recipients. After receiving nearly 30 applicants, four research projects were selected to share $360,000 in grant funding.

“Being able to fund near-commercial projects represents a leap forward in our mission of supporting the cutting-edge work of our faculty and students and helping bring those to market,” Adrian Trömel, assistant vice president for strategy and investments, says in a news release. “Feedback from industry and investors show that they’re excited on how the One Small Step grants help derisk these technologies, getting them ready to launch. Watch this space for the next generation of leading deeptech companies.”

The selected projects include:

  • PerisBio, developed by Samira Aglhara Fotovat and Samantha Fleury from Rice Professor Omid Veiseh's Lab, focuses on novel, hydrogel-encapsulated engineered "cell factories" for the minimally invasive treatment of endometriosis. The project received a $100,000 award.
  • Solidec, founded by Ryan Duchanois and Yang Xia from Rice Professor Haotian Wang's Lab, is a room temperature, solid-state direct air capture technology. The project received a $100,000 award.
  • HornetX, led by Rice Professor Aditya Mohite's Lab, aims to produce highly stable green hydrogen using a perovskite-based photoelectrochemical cell with leading efficiency. The project received a $80,000 award.
  • Coflux, developed by Jeremy Daum and Alec Ajnsztajn from the labs of Rice Professors Rafael Verduzco and Pulickel Ajayan, focuses on covalent organic framework-based photocatalysts for instream remediation of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) from water. The project received a $80,000 award.

The Office of Innovation created an investment advisory committee — made up of entrepreneurs, investors and corporate executives across industries — to select these recipients. The grant program was funded by the Office of Innovation, with support from Breakthrough Energy Fellows for climate and energy projects

“The inaugural winners of the One Small Step Grant represent the innovative spirit and dedication to excellence that defines our students and faculty," Rice Chief Innovation Officer Paul Cherukuri says. "We are proud to support these groundbreaking projects on their journey from lab to market."

Rice University is in the process of restructuring operations at the Ion. Photo courtesy of the Ion

Houston innovation hub restructures, pulls in more Rice resources

cha-cha-changes

Rice University is leaning in on the Ion by restructuring the innovation hub's team and increasing the university's presence at the hub.

Paul Cherukuri, vice president for innovation, tells InnovationMap that the changes being made at the Ion — Rice's Midtown innovation hub — are a reflection of Rice President Reginald DesRoches's vision for the hub and for the university as a leader of innovation.

"We're embracing the community even further by what we've done with this restructuring," Cherukuri says. "The restructuring is really a result of Reggie's vision of us wanting to move forward with helping the community to grow innovation across Houston, throughout Texas, if not the world."

He adds that the university is "putting resources from Rice Alliance and amping up what's happening at the Ion."

Earlier this month, Rice announced that Brad Burke, executive director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, has been named associate vice president for industry and new ventures reporting to Cherukuri's Office of Innovation.

Cherukuri confirms that the Rice Alliance will take over programming at the Ion, and that he too will have an increased presence at the hub. The restructuring includes elimination of positions at the Ion; however, Rice declined to comment on matters of personnel.

"We have members of the Ion staff who are going to be integrated to the Rice Alliance," Cherukuri says. "The direction of this is really so that we can no longer stay behind the hedges and do more for the Houston community."

Cherukuri says the university has already made a concerted effort on this, and soon will deliver on the Rice Nexus, a hub within the Ion for showcasing and connecting Rice innovation. Additionally, Rice announced last month that it's partnering with Woodside Energy, which committed $12.5 million over the next five years to create the Woodside Rice Decarbonization Accelerator.

Last year, Cherukuri joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to expound upon his vision for the Ion in his role as the inaugural vice president for innovation, which he was named to in 2022.


Rice University announced a new climate tech initiative backed by Woodside Energy. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Rice University launches $12.5M climate tech accelerator

coming soon

Rice University has announced its latest initiative to advance clean energy technology into commercialization with a new partnership with a global energy company.

Woodside Energy, headquartered in Australia with its global operations in Houston following its 2022 acquisition of BHP Group, has committed $12.5 million over the next five years to create the Woodside Rice Decarbonization Accelerator.

"The goal of the accelerator is to fast track the commercialization of innovative decarbonization technologies created in Rice labs," Rice University President Reginald DesRoches says to a crowd at the Ion at the initiative's announcement. "These technologies have the potential to make better batteries, transitistors, and other critical materials for energy technologies. In addition, the accelerator will work on manufacturing these high-value products from captured and converted carbon dioxide and methane."

"The Woodside Rice Decarbonization Accelerator will build on the work that Rice has been doing in advanced materials, energy, energy transition, and climate for many years. More than 20 percent of our faculty do some related work to energy and climate," he continues. "Harnessing their efforts alongside an esteemed partner like Woodside Energy is an exciting step that will undoubtedly have an impact far and wide."

Woodside, which has over 800 employees based in Houston, has been a partner at the Ion since last spring. Daniel Kalms, Woodside Energy's CTO and executive vice president, explains that the new initiative falls in line with the three goals of Woodside's climate strategy, which includes keeping up with global energy demand, creating value, and conducting its business sustainably. The company has committed a total of $5 billion to new energy by 2030, Kalms says.

"We know that the world needs energy that is more affordable, sustainable, and secure to support the energy transition — and we want to provide that energy. Energy that is affordable, sustainable, and secure requires innovation and the application of new technology. That's what this is about," he says.

"Of course collaboration will be the key," Kalms continues. "By working with researchers, entrepreneurs, leading experts and parallel industries, we can combine our capability to solve collective challenges and create shared opportunities. That's why we are excited to be partnering with Rice."

The accelerator will be run by Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice University, and Aditya Mohite, associate professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Materials Science and Nanoengineering. Additional Rice professors will be involved as well, Cherukuri says.

"Success for us will not be papers, it will be products," Cherukuri says of what Woodside wants from the partnership. "We picked faculty at Rice in particular who were interested in taking on this charge, and they were all faculty who created companies."

Last fall, Rice announced a grant and venture initiative to accelerate innovation from Rice in the biotech space.

Brad Burke has been named associate vice president for industry and new ventures within Rice University's Office of Innovation. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Houston innovation leader named to new role to drive strategy, programming

supporting innovators

A longtime Houston innovation leader has added a new title to his role at Rice University.

Brad Burke, who has served as executive director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship for 20 years, has been named associate vice president for industry and new ventures, the university announced this week. He will take on this new role within the Office of Innovation, as well as continue leading the Rice Alliance.

Rice's Office of Innovation, which was established in 2022 with the appointment of Chief Innovation Officer and Vice President for Innovation Paul Cherukuri, exists to support new and innovative initiatives and technologies from the Rice community with mentorship, funding, pilots, and more.

“The Rice Alliance has played a key role over the past two decades in building Rice’s reputation as a leading institution for innovation and entrepreneurship,” Cherukuri says in a news release. “We are thrilled to have Brad Burke join the Office of Innovation to support our faculty and students in commercializing their inventions.”

Burke has played a major role in the collaboration of Houston for the past 20 years leading the Rice Alliance, which coordinates many event programs and accelerators — including the Rice Business Plan Competition, energy and life science forums, the Clean Energy Accelerator, Owl Spark, Blue Launch, and more.

Last year, Burke received the Outstanding Contributions to Advancing Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Higher Education Award at the 2023 Deshpande Symposium for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Higher Education. He also accepted the 2023 Trailblazer Award at the Houston Innovation Awards.

Last fall, Rice University's Office of Innovation established the One Small Step Grant — named for Neil Armstrong's first words spoken from Tranquility Base just several years after JFK's speech at Rice. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

The Office of Innovation also grew its team last August with the appointment of Houston materials scientist-turned-entrepreneur Adrian Trömel as its new assistant vice president for strategy and investments.

In 2022, Brad Burke joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the work he and his team do at Rice Alliance.


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

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 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 first of Rice University's new moonshot initiatives, the Rice Biotech Launch Pad was announced on the 61st anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's address at Rice Stadium. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

New biotech lab, accelerator emerges in Houston to speed up commercialization of life-saving cures

ready to launch

A new initiative from Rice University is launching with an ambitious goal — to take biotech innovations from concept to clinical trials in five years or less.

The Rice Biotech Launch Pad is a newly announced initiative that will expedite Rice University's health and medical technology innovations. The accelerator, which will occupy 15,000 square feet of space on campus, will be funded through federal grants and donations.

“The Rice Biotech Launch Pad will ensure that our faculty and students have the skills, partnerships, tools and support to create technologies that can transform our city and the world,” Rice President Reginald DesRoches says in a press release. “More importantly, the accelerator will provide a pathway for these creations and discoveries to be turned into medical cures that significantly impact people’s lives. Rice researchers have been doing this for years. This development will allow them to do even more and at a quicker, more efficient pace.”

Leading the program are two seasoned experts: associate professor of bioengineering at Rice, Omid Veiseh, and biotech entrepreneur Paul Wotton, who co-founded Avenge Bio and other startups with technology discovered in Veiseh’s lab. Veiseh will serve as faculty director, and Wotton will lead as executive director. Veiseh says the team behind the new lab will assist faculty in their mission to garner funding — via grants from organizations such as ARPA-H, DARPA and the NIH — as well as creating pathways for licensing revenue for the university.

“We have the infrastructure, financial backing and talent in Houston to do more in creating new medicines to cure disease," Veiseh says in the release. "This is a thriving environment that warrants more attention and dedication to bring forward Houston’s medical discoveries. I am proud to help make this happen.”

The accelerator’s founding advisory council members from Rice are:

  • Paul Cherukuri, Rice’s vice president for innovation.
  • Jacob Robinson, professor of electrical and computer engineering and of bioengineering and founder and CEO of Motif Neurotech.
  • Ashok Veeraraghavan, professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science and co-founder of Synopic.
  • Yael Hochberg, head of the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative and the Ralph S. O'Connor Professor of Finance and Entrepreneurship at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business.

“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.”

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.