This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sarah Essama of Teach for America Houston, Scott Schneider of HTX Labs, and Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez. Photos courtesy

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

Sarah Essama, director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston

Sarah Essama of Teach For America Houston shares how she innovated a new way for students themselves to learn how to innovate. Photo courtesy of Sarah Essama

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase. Click here to read more.

Scott Schneider, CEO and founder of HTX Labs

Scott Schneider of HTX Labs has something to celebrate. Photo via htxlabs.com

A Houston-based virtual reality training provider has closed its first round of funding. HTX Labs announced last month that it has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption. Click here to read more.

​Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez 

Two Houston health care innovators got the green light to distribute their low-cost COVID-19 vaccine in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of TMC

After months of development and testing, the Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release. Click here to read more.

Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez got the green light to distribute their low-cost COVID-19 vaccine in Indonesia. Photo courtesy

Houston doctors get approval for low-cost COVID vaccine abroad

green light

A Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

PT Bio Farma, which oversees government-owned pharmaceutical manufacturers in Indonesia, says it’s prepared to make 20 million doses of the IndoVac COVID-19 vaccine this year and 100 million doses a year by 2024. This comes after the vaccine received authorization from the Indonesian Food and Drug Authority for emergency use in adults.

With more than 275 million residents, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release.

Aside from distributing the vaccine in Indonesia, Bio Farma plans to introduce it to various international markets.

“The need for a safe, effective, low-cost vaccine for middle- to low-income countries is central to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Bottazzi, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor.

“Without widespread inoculation of populations in the developing world, which must include safe, effective booster doses, additional [COVID-19] variants will develop, hindering the progress achieved by currently available vaccines in the United States and other Western countries.”

Bio Farma says it has completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials for IndoVac and is wrapping up a Phase 3 trial.

IndoVac is a version of the patent-free, low-cost Corbevax vaccine, developed in Houston and dubbed “The World’s COVID-19 Vaccine.” The vaccine formula can be licensed by a vaccine producer in any low- or middle-income country, which then can take ownership of it, produce it, name it, and work with government officials to distribute it, Hotez told The Texas Tribune in February.

Among donors that have pitched in money for development of the vaccine are the Houston-based MD Anderson and John S. Dunn foundations, the San Antonio-based Kleberg Foundation, and Austin-based Tito’s Vodka.

“During 2022, we hope to partner with the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies to vaccinate the world. We believe that global vaccine equity is finally at hand and that it is the only thing that can bring the COVID pandemic to an end,” Hotez and Bottazzi wrote in a December 2021 article for Scientific American.

Dr. Peter Hotez and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi have been recognized by Fast Company for their leadership in developing low-cost COVID vaccine. Photo courtesy of Texas Children's

Houston doctors recognized among top creative leaders in business

winners

This week, Fast Company announced its 14th annual list of Most Creative People in Business — and two notable Houstonians made the cut.

Dr. Peter Hotez and his fellow dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, were named among the list for “open sourcing a COVID-19 Vaccine for the rest of the world.” The list, which recognizes individuals making a cultural impact via bold achievements in their field, is made up of influential leaders in business.

Hotez and Bottazzi are also co-directors for the Texas Children's Hospital's Center for Vaccine Development -one of the most cutting-edge vaccine development centers in the world. For the past two decades it has acquired an international reputation as a non-profit Product Development Partnership (PDP), advancing vaccines for poverty-related neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and emerging infectious diseases of pandemic importance. One of their most notable achievements is the development of a vaccine technology leading to CORBEVAX, a traditional, recombinant protein-based COVID-19 vaccine.

"It's an honor to be recognized not only for our team's scientific efforts to develop and test low cost-effective vaccines for global health, but also for innovation in sustainable financing that goes beyond the traditional pharma business model," says Hotez in a statement.

The technology was created and engineered by Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development specifically to combat the worldwide problem of vaccine access and availability. Biological E Limited (BE) developed, produced and tested CORBEVAX in India where over 60 million children have been vaccinated so far.

Earlier this year, the doctors were nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for their research and vaccine development of the vaccine. Its low cost, ease of production and distribution, safety, and acceptance make it well suited for addressing global vaccine inequity.

"We appreciate the recognition of our efforts to begin the long road to 'decolonize' the vaccine development ecosystem and make it more equitable. We hope that CORBEVAX becomes one of a pipeline of new vaccines developed against many neglected and emerging infections that adversely affect global public health," says Bottazzi in the news release from Texas Children's.

Fast Company editors and writers research candidates for the list throughout the year, scouting every business sector, including technology, medicine, engineering, marketing, entertainment, design, and social good. You can see the complete list here

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Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Dr. Peter Hotez have been nominated for their low-cost COVID vaccine. Photo courtesy of Baylor College of Medicine

2 Houston doctors nominated for Nobel Peace Prize for low-cost COVID vaccine

major moment

He’s gained national and global acclaim for his battle against COVID-19 and for his efforts, Houston’s Dr. Peter Hotez has been nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.

Hotez, and his fellow dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, were nominated for the iconic award by Houston Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher (Texas-07).

The duo, who are also co-directors of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, were cited in a letter to the Norwegian Nobel Committee for their work to develop and distribute the low-cost Corbevax vaccine to people of the world — without patent limitation.

“My hope is that the nomination not only recognizes the importance of reducing global vaccine inequities and inequalities, but also raises the awareness regarding the importance of vaccines as lifesaving interventions and combating vaccine hesitancy in the US and globally,” Hotez tells CultureMap.

As ABC13 reports, the Nobel nominations were due Monday, January 31. In March, a shortlist is prepared and then reviewed between April and August. The winners are announced in early October and they receive their awards in Oslo, Norway on December 10.

“Dr. Hotez and Dr. Bottazzi’s effort to develop the Corbevax vaccine is truly one of international cooperation and partnership to bring health, security, and peace around the world by creating a COVID-19 vaccine and making it available and accessible to all,” Fletcher said in a statement. “It is a contribution that is of the greatest benefit to humankind.”

Hotez, one of CultureMap’s most-talked-about Houstonians in 2021, added in a statement: “I am honored that Congresswoman Fletcher would nominate us for the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. Bottazzi and I have worked together for years, and our purpose has never changed — to bring attention to the neglected diseases of poverty and build a new generation of vaccine in the pursuit of global vaccine diplomacy. With our COVID vaccine, which is inexpensive and easy to produce, our intent was to make it available to millions of people in the world who would otherwise not have access to COVID vaccines.”

“When the COVID pandemic hit, we wanted to make a difference and had great confidence our coronavirus vaccine technology, previously developed, could lead to a global solution,” Bottazzi added. “Hopefully, it will be game changing for many countries.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez at the Center for Vaccine Development. Photo courtesy of Texas Children's Hospital

2 Houston powerhouses deploy game-changing COVID-19 worldwide vaccine

a good shot

With the U.S. logging its highest single-day total of new COVID-19 cases (441,278 infections) and some 281, 808, 270 cases documented worldwide, new treatments worldwide are in major demand — especially in emerging nations.

To that end, Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine announced a new COVID vaccine ready to deploy in India and soon, other underserved countries.

Corbevax, which is dubbed “The World’s COVID-19 Vaccine,” utilizes a traditional recombinant protein-based technology that will enable production at large scales, per a press release. That means the inoculation will be widely accessible to inoculate the global population.

This new vaccine was developed at Texas Children’s Hospital CVD and led by co-directors Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez — and in-licensed from BCM Ventures, Baylor College of Medicine’s integrated commercialization team, to Hyderabad-based vaccine and pharmaceutical company Biological E. Limited (BE).

After completing two Phase III clinical trials involving more than 3000 subjects the vaccine was found to be safe, well tolerated, and immunogenic. Current research shows Corbevax notably effective against the Ancestral-Wuhan strain and the globally dominant Delta variant, press materials note.

Safe, streamlined, low-cost vaccines for middle- to low-income countries are central to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the two Houston organizations note. Indeed, without widespread vaccination of populations in the Global South, additional virus variants will arise, hindering the progress achieved by currently available vaccines in the United States and other Western countries, per research.

“This announcement is an important first step in vaccinating the world and halting the pandemic,” said Hotez in a statement. “Our vaccine technology offers a path to address an unfolding humanitarian crisis, namely the vulnerability the low- and middle-income countries face against the delta variant. Widespread and global vaccination with our Texas Children’s-Baylor-BE vaccine would also forestall the emergence of new variants. We have previously missed that opportunity for the alpha and delta variant. Now is our chance to prevent a new global wave from what might follow.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Here's your latest roundup of innovation news you may have missed. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

Google grants Houston founders funds, The Ion looks for artists, and more local innovation news

short stories

The Houston innovation ecosystem is bursting at the seams with news, and for this reason, local startup and tech updates may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, the Comcast RISE program expands to grant more funds, Google names Houston-area recipients from its Black Founder Fund, The Ion is looking for artists to participate in a new initiative, and more.

Google cohort awards Black founders $100,000 each

Google has granted funds to two Houston companies. Photo via Pexels

DOSS and SOTAOG, two Houston-based startups, have received $100,000 each as a part of the second cohort of the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund, a $10 million initiative for Black founders. Originally reported to be a part of Google's accelerator early this summer, DOSS is a digital brokerage that uses tech to make homeownership more affordable, and SOTAOG is an enterprise solutions provider within the oil and gas and heavy industrial industries.

"The Google for Startups Black Founders Fund embodies our mission of helping underrepresented founders grow their businesses. We are excited to continue the fund and contribute funding to Black founders, with no strings attached. Black founders currently receive less than 1 percent of total VC funding," says Jewel Burks Solomon, head of Google for Startups US, in a news release. "We heard loud and clear from the 2020 fund recipients that Google for Startups and Goodie Nation have been crucial to their success not only through funding, but through community, mentorship, network connections and technical expertise."

Last year, Google for Startups awarded 76 Black-led startups up to $100,000 in non-dilutive funding, as well as technical support from tools and teams across Google, including as much as $120,000 in donated search Ads from Google.org and up to $100,000 in Google Cloud credits, according to the release.

In addition to the two companies from Houston, eight companies from Austin and Dallas were also chosen for the second program.

The Ion calls for local artists

The Ion is looking for local artists to create innovative window displays. Photo courtesy of The Ion

The Ion, a Midtown innovation hub that's owned and operated by Rice Management Company, is looking for local artists to work on two prominent display windows at the front of the newly renovated historic Sears building.

"As a nexus for creativity of many different kinds, The Ion welcomes Houston's talented artists to tap into their unique skill sets and diverse backgrounds to submit inventive proposals that will ultimately comprise two different art installations. Each installation will contribute to Houston's innovation ecosystem by inspiring the growing community of creators who will see the building's display windows on a daily basis," says Artistic Consultant Piper Faust in a news release.

The two art installations will reside for six months — from February to August of next year. The submissions will be evaluated by a team of experts identified by Rice Management Co. and Piper Faust. The budget for each project will be $20,000.

According to the release, the submissions are open to Houston-area artists and should be in line with The Ion's "vision and mission of accelerating innovation, connecting communities and facilitating partnerships to create growth and opportunity in Houston."

Artists can apply online until October 1 at 5 pm.

Comcast RISE announces additional $1 million for Houston founders

Comcast to dole out $1M in grants to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston

The Comcast RISE program will give out another batch of $10,000 grants to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

The Comcast RISE Investment Fund, which announced funding for 100 small businesses in Houston earlier this year, has expanded to provide an additional $1 million in support. The program is focused on BIPOC-owned small businesses in Harris and Fort Bend Counties that have been in business for three or more years with 1 to 25 employees.

Eligible businesses can apply online at ComcastRISE.com beginning October 1 through October 14 for one of the one hundred $10,000 grants.

Houston startup wins $25,000

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, won $25,000 for her company. Photo courtesy of Church Space

Dallas-based Impact Ventures, a nonprofit startup accelerator focused on empowering women and communities of color, hosted its bi-annual event, The Startup Showcase. A Houston-based company, Church Space, took the top prize of $25,000.

Billed as the "Netflix of churches," Church Space originally started as a way to allow groups to rent spaces for worship. But, in light of the pandemic, the company is pivoted to launch Church Space TV, a streaming program that allows churches and ministries to stream worship services for free.

"It felt like the perfect opportunity to give churches a way to reach more people during the pandemic," Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, previously told InnovationMap. "This would create more impact than anything we could possibly offer at this time."

The company is also one of MassChallenge Texas's 2021 cohort.

Houston health care leader receives prestigious award

Dr. Peter Hotez, a leader in the development of Texas Children's and Baylor's COVID-19 vaccine construct, has been named the recipient of a prestigious award. ​Photo courtesy of TCH

Dr. Peter Hotez, Texas Children's Hospital Chair in Tropical Pediatrics, has been awarded the 2021 David E. Rogers Award. Hotez is co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

The annual award, presented by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Association of American Medical Colleges, "honors a medical school faculty member who has made major contributions to improving the health and health care of the American people," according to a news release.

"I am thrilled to be honored with the David E. Rogers Award," Hotez says in the release. "As we continue this fight against COVID-19, having the additional support from the AAMC will amplify our efforts to improve public health nationally and globally."

The award will be presented to Dr. Hotez at the 2021 AAMC Awards Recognition Event on Wednesday, October 27.

Hotez is leading the development of Texas Children's and Baylor's COVID-19 vaccine construct, according to the release, and he has dedicated much of his time to vaccine advocacy efforts, countering rising antivaccine and anti-science sentiments in the United States while promoting vaccine diplomacy efforts globally.

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Rice names inaugural recipients of new grant program that's doling out $360,000

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."

Innovative Texas hardtech startup secures award to test in space

ready for liftoff

A Houston-area startup and Greentown Houston member has secured a prestigious space prize.

College Station’s FluxWorks, which develops and commercializes non-contact magnetic gearboxes for use in extreme environments, was one of two startups to receive the Technology in Space Prize, which is funded by Boeing and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, manager of the International Space Station National Laboratory. Los Angeles-based Symphony Bio also received the honor.

Through the MassChallenge startup accelerator program, the two companies now get to utilize the research environment available through the ISS National Lab. CASIS and Boeing awarded Symphony Bio and FluxWorks more than $630,000 in total through the contest. Approximately $20 million has been awarded for more than 30 projects, which have already launched to the space station, since the event’s beginning.

"Boeing is excited to partner with CASIS to support the advancement of cutting-edge research using the unique environment of the orbiting laboratory,” says Scott Copeland, director for ISS research integration at Boeing, in a news release. “Enabling research that can help millions diagnosed with cancer and advancing mechanical innovations of non-contact magnetic gear technology will benefit human life in both the harsh environment of space and terrestrial environments.

"There are many smart people out there with great ideas who can leverage the space station to advance innovation, and these two companies serve as an inspiration to them all,” he continues.

FluxWorks, which won the 2023 Rice Business Plan Competition, will use the space station to test performance of a new gear. The magnetic gear will be tested to assess its startup behavior, dynamic operation, vibrational characteristics, and seal and bearing behavior in microgravity. Gearbox's goal is to reduce the mass of motors required in a variety of applications, but the lubricant needed to make them work is not designed for use in extreme environments, like space. Magnetic gears do not require lubricant, which makes them an alternative.

Symphony Bio will use the orbiting laboratory to develop a new cancer treatment that hopes to harness the immune system to fight tumors.

Houston innovator calls for collaboration from energy tech community

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 226

Scott Gale will be the first to admit that hosting a week of curated events targeted to a group of individuals within the tech and energy space isn't a novel idea — Climate Week NYC has been taking over Manhattan for over a decade. But Gale believes Houston deserves to have its own time to shine.

Earlier this month, Halliburton Labs, Rice Alliance, and Greentown Houston announced the inaugural Houston Energy and Climate Startup Week 2024 to take place in September, but Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs, says he hopes this is just the beginning of Houston organizations coming together to collaborate on the initiative.

"I think we have a really awesome initial coalition. Whether your the fifth company or organization to raise its hand to do something that week or the 50th — it really doesn't matter," Gale says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It really is an open invitation — and I want to make that super clear."



Gale says that he's looked at some of the successful week-long events — like SXSW and others — and the key factors are calendar coordination and cross promotion. Now that Houston has the week set — September 9 to 13, 2024 — it's time for everyone to fill that week with a density of events anywhere around Houston to showcase the city's innovative energy community.

Those interested can learn more or submit their event information online.

The initiative falls in line with how Gale has led Halliburton Labs from its early days in 2020 to now with a focus on community. While the corporate world always needs eyes on its return on investment, supporting the innovation ecosystem has been a bit of a leap of faith – and it always will be.

"There's always this idea of having a line of sight to the outcomes (of your investment). And when you're interfacing with or investing in the startup community, you don't have the benefit of line of sight. A lot of the things that are being solved for are just too early stage. And that can be really hard for corporates to wrap their heads around," Gale says.

"One of the things that we got to was this idea that you can invest in the startup community, and you don't know where the returns will come from, but you know they will come," he continues.