Pokatok, which will take place in April 2024 in downtown Houston, named two new partners. Rendering courtesy of Pokatok

A sports-focused festival planning to premiere this spring has named two brand partnerships today.

Pokatok announced its teaming up with Beasley Esports and World Freestyle Football Association for the festival set to take place in downtown Houston on April 4 to 7, 2024.

“We’re building the world’s fair for sports which means showcasing as wide a variety of different sports as we can,” Lawson Gow, Pokatok co-founder, says in the news release, “and these two partners could not be more illustrative of the mix we are trying to achieve.”

Beasley Esports, which owns the Houston Outlaws, Team AXLE, and Juggernaut, will drive esports and gaming at the festival, as well as assist on programming, competitions, and more. The organization will also help coordinate activities — such as meet and greets and competitions — with esport professionals.

“I am most excited to see traditional sports and esports share the big stage — redefining the evolution in sports and technology and spotlighting all the excitement that lies ahead for sports enthusiasts — as it’s never been done before,” Lori Burgess, COO of Beasley ESport, says in the release.

The other newly announced partner, WFFA, will feature programming of its unique sport, freestyle football, which is defined in the release as a fusion of acrobatics, dance, music, and tricks with a football.

“The vibe and energy of what the Pokatok Festival will be, is perfectly in sync with the sport of Freestyle Football and what we do,” Dan Wood, co-founder of the WFFA, says in the release. “With the FIFA World Cup coming to Houston in 2026, it’s a great opportunity for everybody to already experience some other forms of Football related sporting entertainment.”

Pokatok was officially announced earlier this summer by its parent company Gow Companies, founded by Lawson Gow (who is the son of David Gow, InnovationMap's parent company's CEO). The festival will feature a sports tech expo, a film festival, speakers and panels, live music, pitch competitions, and more. The venue will be George R. Brown Convention Center, Discovery Green, and various nearby hotels. The full lineup of events has not yet been released, but interested parties can opt in for pre-sale information online.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Emmanuel Urquieta of TRISH, Ariel Jones of Qualtrics XM, and Lawson Gow of Pokatok. 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 space health research to sports tech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta, chief medical officer of TRISH

Emmanuel Urquieta, chief medical officer of TRISH, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Since 2021, the Translational Research Institute for Space Health has conducted its research on four missions — which has meant an unparalleled access to space health data for TRISH.

“We really saw the value of implementing research in civilians because they are different from your traditional government astronaut,” Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta, chief medical officer for TRISH, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “In civilians, you see a more diverse population.”

Urquieta says TRISH's experiments on these missions all fall within a few pillars of space health, including space's effects on sensory motor skills, like balance and motion sickness, as well as mental health, environmental data from the vehicles, vital monitoring, and more. Read more.

Ariel Jones, head of health care provider solution strategy for Qualtrics XM

As the health care industry continues to evolve, experience management technology will play an increasingly important role in addressing health equity gaps and improving the health and well-being of patients across the globe. Photo courtesy

In a guest column for InnovationMap, Ariel Jones, head of health care provider solution strategy for Qualtrics XM, addresses inequalities in health care — and how technology, specifical experience management tech, can help bridge the gap.

"As the health care industry continues to evolve, experience management technology will play an increasingly important role in addressing health equity gaps and improving the health and well-being of patients across the globe," she writes. Read more.

Lawson Gow, co-founder of Pokatok

A new sports festival is headed to Houston next year. Photo courtesy of Pokatok

Pokatok, the recently announced, four-day sports festival is slated to take place April 4-7, 2024.

“Pokatok will not only be the largest gathering of the entire sports tech ecosystem, it will also be a true fan festival for sports enthusiasts,” says Gow in the news release. “Everyone speaks the language of sport, it’s an incredibly powerful unifier of our society, and this festival will bring together people from around the world to experience hundreds of events revolving around the new and the next in sport.”

The festival, which has secured support from Houston First, the Greater Houston Partnership, and the Harris County Houston Sports Authority to put on the event, will feature two tracks — one focused on sports innovation and the other surrounding a fan experience. Pokatok X will include an expo and showcase focused on sports innovation, bringing together startups, investors, accelerators, athletes, and industry experts to dive into sports tech. Read more.

A new sports festival is headed to Houston next year. Rendering courtesy of Pokatok

New sports festival reveals plans to take over downtown Houston next spring

pokatok prep

A Houston team announced their plans to bring the “world’s fair for sports” to downtown Houston in April 2024.

Pokatok, the four-day festival, will feature a sports tech expo, a film festival, speakers and panels, live music, pitch competitions, and more. The venue will be George R. Brown Convention Center, Discovery Green, and various nearby hotels, according to the release.

Gow Companies, founded by Lawson Gow (who is the son of David Gow, InnovationMap's parent company's CEO), announced that the team has secured support from Houston First, the Greater Houston Partnership, and the Harris County Houston Sports Authority to put on the event, which is slated to take place April 4-7, 2024. The company also owns Houston Exponential and a sports accelerator called Pokatok Labs.

“Pokatok will not only be the largest gathering of the entire sports tech ecosystem, it will also be a true fan festival for sports enthusiasts,” says Gow in the news release. “Everyone speaks the language of sport, it’s an incredibly powerful unifier of our society, and this festival will bring together people from around the world to experience hundreds of events revolving around the new and the next in sport.”

The festival will take place in April 2024 in downtown. Rendering courtesy of Pokatok

The festival will feature two tracks — one focused on sports innovation and the other surrounding a fan experience. Pokatok X will include an expo and showcase focused on sports innovation, bringing together startups, investors, accelerators, athletes, and industry experts to dive into sports tech.

The Pokatok Fan Festival's track will include product releases, demos for sports technology, sporting events, competitions, tournaments, and more.

Houston is no stranger to hosting major sport events, Harris County - Houston Sports Authority CEO Janis Burke points out in the news release, including the 2023 NCAA Men’s Final Four and the upcoming 2024 College Football National Championship, the 2024 Cricket World Cup, and the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

"Houston is known as one of the best sports destinations in the world," Burke continues. "As an organization, we are consistently looking for ways to innovate and grow in the sports sector. Events like Pokatok are great for advancing sports within the region and providing unique opportunities for our community!"

Tickets are expected to go on sale in the fall, and the organization is looking for potential speakers and partners. The festival's name derives from sport of pok-a-tok, which dates back thousands of years as the world’s first team sport played throughout Mesoamerica.

“The City of Houston is a sports town to its core and has been host to some of the greatest events and moments in sports,” says Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. “Pokatok will help further Houston’s vision of being a destination city for global sporting events and innovations. The business community also supports this venture, and I thank them for their involvement and support. This project is an excellent example of local business leaders joining forces to expand the attractions the City has to offer to both residents and visitors.”

Pokatok will take place in and around the George R. Brown Convention Center. Rendering courtesy of Pokatok

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Veronica Wu of First Bight Ventures, Kate Evinger of Pokatok, and Jill Chapman of Insperity. Courtesy photos

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 synthetic biology to sportstech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures

Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Veronica Wu saw the potential in Houston for a vibrant synthetic biology hub that can propel one of the most exciting field of technology into the future. So, she founded First Bight Ventures to invest in synthetic biology startups in hopes to attract them to Houston.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Click here to read more.

Kate Evinger, director of Pokatok Labs

Photo courtesy of gBETA

Pokatok Labs — a scale-up program for sportstech startups — is in between its first and second cohorts, and Director Kate Evinger joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to look back at the inaugural class and share what the team is looking for in applications.

"Our mission is to help be a partner with all the exciting things happening in Houston — from the startup entrepreneurship side to the things we're seeing in the sports community — to continue to elevate and uplift the voices here in addition to bringing folks in from all over the world to celebrate the human experience in sports and to continue driving innovation in this space," she says on the show.

Evinger shares more about Pokatok Labs and the potential she sees for Houston to continue evolving as a hub for sports innovation on the podcast. Click here to read more.

Jill Chapman, senior performance consultant with Insperity

Photo courtesy of Insperity

Workplace culture can make or break a company of any size — especially now in this labor market. Making your office environment a place employees feel like they can take paid time off and vacations is key to prevent burnout and turnover. Jill Chapman, senior performance consultant with Insperity, writes in a guest column her tips for fostering this type of environment.

"As small business owners continue to navigate the labor shortage, savvy leaders recognize the significance of retaining existing employees, so it behooves them to encourage PTO usage to foster a highly engaged and energized workforce," she writes. Click here to read more.

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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.