Houston-based PolyVascular has invented a polymer-based heart valve for children with congenital heart disease. Photo courtesy of TMC Innovation

A $2 million federal grant will enable Houston-based PolyVascular to launch human trials of what it hails as the first polymer-based heart valve for children.

In conjunction with the grant, Dr. Will Clifton has joined the medical device company as chief operating officer. He will oversee the grant as principal investigator, and will manage the company's operations and R&D. Clifton is president and co-founder of Houston-based Enventure, a medical innovation incubator and education hub. He previously was senior director of medical affairs at Houston-based Procyrion, a clinical-stage medical device company.

PolyVascular's Phase II grant came from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which promotes technological projects.

The PolyVascular heart valve will help treat congenital heart disease affecting more than 1 million around the world. PolyVascular plans to launch clinical trials of the valve in children 5 and over within two years.

"Congenital heart disease remains the most common category of birth defect and a leading cause of childhood death in the developed world," reads a March 30 news release from PolyVascular, founded in 2014.

PolyVascular says the valve can be implanted without surgery, and can avoid the use of valve replacements from humans or animals. Those valve replacements are difficult to find and often don't last too long, leading to frequent follow-up surgeries.

"Our aim at PolyVascular is to transform the care of children with congenital heart disease by developing an entirely new generation of valves made of medical-grade polymer devoid of any biological tissue," Dr. Henri Justino, chief medical officer at PolyVascular, says in a release. "The valves in use so far for children have been made of biological tissue. Unfortunately, our immune systems target and destroy this biological tissue, sometimes rapidly, rendering the valve ineffective."

The SBIR grant isn't the only win for PolyVascular in recent years.

In 2019, the startup came away with several honors in the 2019 Texas A&M New Ventures Competition. It won the pitch competition (complete with a $5,000 cash award), and received the Biotex Investment Prize, Amerra Visualization Services Prize, and GOOSE Society Investment Prize.

Also in 2019, PolyVascular, a member of TMCx's 2017 medical device cohort, won in the medical device and health disparities and equity categories at the fifth annual Impact Pediatric Health pitch competition. Additionally, the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium granted the company up to $25,000.

Last year, MedTech Innovator, a nonprofit accelerator in the medical technology sector, announced PolyVascular was one of 50 companies chosen to participate in the organization's flagship four-month accelerator program.

"During these uncertain and challenging times, the need for health innovations — specifically those that promise to deliver long-term value to the health care system and patients — is more critical than ever," said Paul Grand, CEO of MedTech Innovator.

Another Houston startup, Vivante Health, also was picked for the MedTech Innovator program. Vivante is a digital health company that helps people address digestive health and wellness.

Spark Biomedical took home first place at the Texas A&M New Ventures Competition. Courtesy of Texas A&M

Houston companies take home big prizes from a Texas A&M startup competition

Big winners

Earlier this month, 16 startups competed in the 2019 Texas A&M New Ventures Competition for more than $350,000 in cash and in-kind services — the largest pool of prizes in the contest's history.

Houston had a huge presence at TNVC this year. Several Houston startups competed in the technology- and science-focused pitch competition, and the top three prizes were claimed by Houstonians. Of the 13 health and life science companies that were named semifinalists, seven were related to the TMC Innovation Institute.

Here are the Houston companies that walked away from the TNVC with cash and/or prizes.

Spark Biomedical

Friendswood-based medical device company Spark Biomedical took home the top prize at TNVC, which came with a $50,000 check. Spark's technology uses a noninvasive neurostimulation treatment for opioid addiction recovery.

"I'm very humbled and grateful," says Daniel Powell, CEO of Spark, in a release. "This award means a lot because Texas A&M is my alma mater. Being back here is fantastic, and this win is a testament to the work we're doing and our dedication to making a difference with this product."

Spark also was recognized with the Southwest Pediatric Device Prize and the Aggie Angel Network Investment Prize. Recently, Spark announced a partnership with another Houston startup, Galen Data.

SurfEllent

Photo via surfellent.com

Coming in at No. 2 overall and receiving a $35,000 prize was Houston-based advanced coating company, SurfEllent. The company, which is based out of the University of Houston's Technology Park, has designed an anti-icing technology that can be used in any type of situation from de-icing cars to aeronautical applications.

SurfEllent was also recently recognized as one of the top three innovators at NASA's 2017 iTech forum, out of 130 entries across the US.

The company also walked away with the TEEX Product Development Center Prize.

Intelligent Implants

Photo by Cody Duty/TMC

Intelligent Implants called Houston home during the 2018 TMCx medical device cohort and still has a presence in town. The company, which created a, implantable wireless device that stimulates bone growth using electrical stimulation, claimed third prize and $25,000.

Last fall, following its success at TMCx, Intelligent Implants was named the "Most Promising Life Science Company" at the 2018 Texas Life Science Forum hosted by the Rice Alliance and BioHouston.

VenoStent

Photo via venostent.com

Another 2018 TMCx medical device cohort member competed at the TNVC and left with fresh funds. VenoStent took fifth place and a $10,000 prize. VenoStent has a device that allows a successful stent implementation on the first try, called the SelfWrap. The device is made from a shape-memory polymer that uses body heat to mold the stent into the vein-artery junction.

VenoStent, which has its headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, also won the Ramey & Schwaller IP Legal Services Prize.

PolyVascular

Courtesy of TMC Innovation

Houston-based PolyVascular walked away a big winner of multiple prizes. The company, a member of TMCx's 2017 medical device cohort, creates polymeric transcatheter valves for children with congenital heart disease.

PolyVascular won the TNVC pitch competition, which came with a $5,000 prize. The startup also walked away with the Biotex Investment Prize, the Amerra Visualization Services Prize, and the GOOSE Society Investment Prize.

Ictero Medical

Ictero Medical, which operates out of JLABs at TMC, took home several prizes, including the Thomas | Horstemeyer IP Legal Services Prize, the TMC Accelerator Admission Prize, and the Engineering Vice Chancellor Innovation Prize — a new award that came with a $15,000 prize.

Ictero created the CholeSafe System — a minimally invasive device that treats gallstone disease patients in a procedure with "only minimal local anesthesia to defunctionalize the gallbladder without having to remove it," according to the website.

Sun Co. Tracking

Sun Co. Tracking was the other of the two startups to receive the new Engineering Vice Chancellor's Innovation Prize and its own $15,000 prize. The Houston-based company is developing shape memory alloy actuators for solar panels.

"This unique prize is intended to help the awardees access the world-class engineering capabilities at Texas A&M to obtain technical assistance toward solving their most challenging technical problems in product design, manufacturing or testing," says Dr. Balakrishna Haridas, TEES director for technology commercialization and entrepreneurship, in a release.

"These collaborations between the prize winners and Texas A&M Engineering will generate technical data to support on Small Business Innovation Research/grant proposal funding or private capital investments to the company."

GaitIQ

Photo via LinkedIn

GaitIQ is based in San Antonio, but is automatically accepted into TMCx's tenth cohort if they'd like, since the company won the TMC Investment Prize. The company, which created a primary care app that uses artificial intelligence and cloud-based technology, also won sixth place overall and $5,000.

GaitIQ also won the Ark Pharmacies, Inc. Regional Prize, the Hollinden Marketing and Strategists Services Prize, and the Schwegman Lundberg and Woessner IP Legal Services Prize.

Houston-based PolyVascular earned recognition in two categories, as well as nabbing up to $25,000. Courtesy of TMC Innovation

2 TMCx companies leave SXSW with awards and grant money

Med tech

Two Houston companies are walking away from SXSW with awards and grant funds.

PolyVascular, a member of TMCx's 2017 medical device cohort, won the fifth annual Impact Pediatric Health pitch competition's medical device and health disparities and equity categories. Additionally, the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium granted the company up to $25,000.

PolyVascular co-founder Henri Justino represented his company in three-minute pitch, and team members Dan Harrington and Kwon Soo Chun were also in attendance.

The company was one of 12 finalists in the competition, which took place on March 8 at SXSW in Austin. Among the judges was Houston doctor, Chester Koh, professor of urology, pediatrics, and OB/GYN at Baylor College of Medicine and Pediatric Urologist at Texas Children's Hospital.

"At the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium, we are always looking for the next cutting-edge breakthrough in the world of medical devices," says Koh in a release. "Impact Pediatric Health's reputation for bringing together the leaders in pediatric medical technology innovations makes it the perfect venue to help identify and accelerate the next generation of medical device companies impacting our youngest of patients."

Founded in 2014, PolyVascular produces polymeric transcatheter valves for children with congenital heart disease — the most common birth defect and number one cause of infant mortality in the developed world. The company's goal is to reduce that number of infant deaths by introducing a higher quality of valves.

Meanwhile, VastBiome, a 2018 biodesign TMCx company, received a $1,000 grant and is now one of two finalists for the San Francisco-based Illumina Accelerator program. The company works with scientists with ongoing clinical trials focusing on the microbiome as it pertains to therapy.

Another TMCx company, Zibrio, was up for an award in the 2019 SXSW Pitch event, but left the contest empty handed.

TMCx has multiple representatives at the festival, and the organization partnered with Energizing Health to host events throughout the first weekend of the conference.

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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

innovation delivered

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

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 — startup development, fintech, and health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston

Impact Hub Houston has two new initiatives for female founders. Photo courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Two accelerator programs were recently announced and they both are aimed at supporting female founders — and one Houston organization is behind them both. Impact Hub Houston announced that it has partnered up with Frost Bank to sponsor eight female founders to participate in Impact Hub's new Accelerate Membership Program.

Additionally, Impact Hub Houston has teamed up with MassChallenge for their own initiative supporting female founders in the Houston-Galveston region in partnership with Houston-based Workforce Solutions. The three organizations are collaborating to launch launch a bootcamp to support female founders in the greater Houston region.

"As a female founder myself, I'm incredibly excited about this opportunity to support and uplift more women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses in our region," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "By now, it's no secret that women, and especially women of color, are under-invested in; and this is our chance to change that by helping more women strengthen their businesses and prepare to seek funding." Click here to read more.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic

What does the future of investment look like? That's something Youngro Lee thinks about daily – and he shares his thoughts on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of NextSeed

The world of investing is changing — and the power shift is tilting from the rich elite to individuals. Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic, has seen the change starting several years ago.

"Investing is traditionally seen as something you can't do unless you're rich," Lee says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was a certain understanding of what anyone (looking to invest) should do. … But now the world is so different."

Lee shares more about the future of investing and how he's watched the Houston innovation ecosystem develop over the years on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health

As we enter year two of the pandemic, the way hospitals function now and in the future is forever changed. Photo courtesy

No industry has been unaffected by COVID-19, Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health, observes in a guest column for InnovationMap. But hospitals — they've had a spotlight shown on them and their technology adoption since day one of the pandemic.

"The pace of innovation for hospitals has been at breakneck speed — from the evolution of new treatment protocols to the need to reconfigure physical spaces to support an influx of patients while also promoting a healing environment during this unprecedented time," she writes.

Hospitals, she says, look and feel completely different now than they did last year and the year before that. Click here to read more.

Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.